Saturday, May 28, 2011

Friendships and How They Help Us Grow

A child comes into the world not as a blank canvas, but already with genetic markers that predispose them to have certain personality characteristics. Some will be ‘easy babies’ and take little care or worry from their caregivers, and others will be naturally shy and cry easily. No two babies are alike, but we can identify certain markers that allow us to see that different children will respond to certain styles of parenting and care more positively, allowing them to become more secure and not withdraw from their environment. It is always the goal of parents to raise healthy, happy children, unless there are mental issues within the family unit, and normal parents want to do best by their children. Having a securely attached child, who is well bonded with their mother, accepting of new situations, and comfortable in their environment as well as unafraid of new situations is the best scenario for a child. However, it is not always possible, due to different children being naturally shy or insecure, or parenting skills and practices being lacking due to work or simply ignorance when it comes to caring for a difficult or ‘shy’ child.
The bonding between mother and child is the first relationship a child learns, and if this is not secure, it can adversely affect the peer relationships the child forms during the rest of their life. Of course, a child who has an insecure attachment with their mother may later learn to form secure bonds with others, but it is much more difficult. Adversely, a child who begins with a secure attachment to their mother may also lose this, through tragedy or life events, and become unable to form attachments to peers or adults through their life.
I am reminded of the children’s story, “The Secret Garden”, where Mary was never securely attached to her mother. She was left to be cared for by nannies in India while her mother and father entertained and wore beautiful clothing. She felt angry and ignored, and played alone and treated adults and servants abusively. When her parents died in a fire, she was unable to cry, and when placed in her uncle’s home, she met her cousin, and befriended him slowly, and learned to form an attachment to another person as she had never known before. She also began to form friendships with a servant and a boy from the moors, and they shared the secret of the garden. By the end of the story, Mary had learned to be a friend, accept friendship, and also learned to cry and not be angry all the time.
Peer relationships are very important from the age of toddlers through adolescence. Children act and react differently during each stage, and it is of utmost importance that parents are there to guide them properly through each of these stages and help them learn how to handle conflicts and resolutions. When toddlers first begin to play in groups, there is little definition of gender, best friends can be of same or opposite sex, but they learn to share, not to hit, and parents must guide them to play together without hurting one another and to understand that what they do as individuals affects others. I remember as a young mother, the circle of children my daughter played with included two girls and a boy, and they had to be reminded on a regular basis to share, not get too rough, don’t push or hit, and be nice! There were often tears, due to one of the children being ‘mean’ to another, or someone wanting what another had, but it was up to the mothers to soothe the feelings, kiss the boo-boos and teach them to work together and play in the group. The children would look back to we mothers from time to time, as if to ask us ‘is this ok?’ This is referred to as ‘social referencing’, the checking back to see whether or not their activities are safe and acceptable within the group or family, and are important in the first stages of teaching children to become members of society.
The skills learned in those sweet sandbox days were the building blocks that helped all those children learn the skills they would need when they went off to day care, and were put into larger groups without their mothers present. Day care, which began for my daughter at about 3 ½, gave her an opportunity to be away from me and her former caregivers, and it also tested her ability to work with new children and people that came from different social situations. She had to rely on the values she had learned from me and the other mothers who had guided her and her little friends to carry her safely through a new situation. ‘Don’t hit’, ‘share’, ‘play nicely’, ‘be kind’, ‘don’t say mean things’, all translated into good rules to follow when in her new environment, and helped her not only survive, but thrive in this new and exciting place. Learning to make friends in her early, formative years taught her how to approach the other children without fear, and how to act in play as well. Her teachers were constantly commenting on how well she did with the other children, and that she took a leadership role when there were problems with other children. I had to laugh more than once when I heard that my daughter had admonished children who were arguing by saying “You can’t say mean things to one another, my Mommy says that’s ugly and pretty little girls don’t say ugly things!” Apparently, the lessons learned in the sandbox do carry through into early childhood!
Having the skills in early childhood, ages 4 through 7, to play with other children, forming bonds and seeking out one another for special events must be guided by the parents or primary caregivers. Children will slowly begin to divide into groups consisting of all boys or all girls, and will ridicule or ‘invade’ the other group from time to time. They are learning to play in very different ways during this time, and this continues on into the early teens. Boys will play rough and tumble games, chasing one another and rough-housing, while girls will play more quietly and organized types of games, often imitating roles of mothers or caregivers. Nature begins to take over and children separate and begin to show the skills that will come into play in their adult lives. I remember at about age 7, the girls began to get serious about learning cartwheels, and it was extreme competition to be able to do cartwheels all the way down the hallway of the school, (even though we were specifically told not to),and to be able to do them right-handed and left handed. We also had jump roping contests and hand games with word ‘tangles’ that went along with the movements. We would spend the entire recess doing these activities, while the boys would run around, chasing one another and wrestling. They would be sweaty and stink, while we would be nice and clean.
When my daughter was the same age, I would visit her school on a regular basis, as my office happened to be directly across the street from her school. I would observe the little girls in her class doing exactly what I and my friends had, twenty years before! The little boys were still running around, sweaty and dusty, and the girls were practicing cartwheels, jumping rope, and clapping little hands.
Something happened at age 12, with all of the children. I don’t know whether it was due to them becoming ‘tweens’, hormones kicking in, or whether the Devil himself invaded, but suddenly best friends became interchangeable, the phrase ‘if you’re friends with her, you can’t be friends with me’ became something I heard on a regular basis, and there were immense amounts of drama, hair-pulling, and crying at various times for no explainable reason. Boys would call, sometimes they would talk for hours, sometimes the phone would get slammed down. Cliques formed, and my daughter formed a circle of friends that she identified with, and they went everywhere together. Her clique had a matching clique of boys, and they would do activities together, like go to a party or movies, and at school events they all sat together or participated together. These kids were all smart, participated in school sports and student government, my daughter was editor of the school paper as well as editor of the yearbook, and they all dressed fairly normal (Thank God!).
I think the reason there was such a huge amount of tension and high emotion at the onset of the teen years was due to the fact that my daughter, as well as all her friends were becoming more ‘fixed’ in their personalities. The young girls and boys were deciding what type of person they wanted to be, how they wanted to present themselves, and who they wanted to be friends with. Former friendships had to be broken to form new ones that were more acceptable to new personas or goals, and it was hurtful to one or both. Girls who were interested now in being cheerleaders and playing sports and making good grades were separating from the girls who had no interest in scholastics or extra-curricular activities. Boys who wanted to play football and baseball were distancing themselves from the guys who were into playing in the band and writing short stories. Even though they may still have remained distant friends, they no longer had enough in common to be best of friends, except in very rare instances. It was much easier to belong to groups of kids that shared common goals, likes and dislikes.
Parents should be very vigilant at this time in their children’s lives to make sure that their teens aren’t being left out and led into the wrong direction by the ‘bad crowd’. Children who have a good sense of self-esteem, good home training, and who are competent at making and keeping friends usually will not be tempted to join anti-social groups or gangs. However, when a child feels left out or alone and needs to feel protected and like they belong, a group of mischief-makers and law-breakers who bring them into their fold and give them a sense of being part of a group is very enticing. Gangs form as substitutes for families, and real family attachments, they give the members a sense of belonging and being a part of something greater than themselves. Parents of teens should not think that a gang need have a special name or wear certain clothing. A gang can simply be a group of kids who practice antisocial behavior and promote within their ranks those who act out against the law or establishment.
Parents should be very careful regarding their advise to their children about how to handle conflicts with their friends and peers. Parents sometimes mistakenly give what they think is good advice, yet it can be exactly opposite of what is acceptable within the peer group. One example is when I was a teen, my mother always told me to walk away from a fight, never get into a physical altercation with anyone. If I had followed her advice, being a teacher’s kid, I would have been picked on mercilessly. My father, knowing the dynamics of the school, since he was a teacher there, told me ‘Never start a fight, but you better end it.’ This proved to work out much better. I think I remember having two altercations, neither of which I started, but both of which I ‘ended’ and I never had any more problems being picked on. I am not advocating violence, not in the least, but this was a long time ago, and standing up for yourself is necessary to stop bullying. In my business career, I never punched anyone, but I learned how to recognize when someone wasn’t working in my best interest and how to counteract their behaviors to make sure that my company was not affected.
I had to learn how to not only make friends, but how to deal with normal daily issues, and also those rare instances where physical violence came into play. High school, and socialization gives teens the social skills they need to go into their college years and eventually the business world. I learned to form friendships and alliances that I still have to this day. My daughter did the same, and I see her thriving at her university, making new friends there while keeping in touch with her best friends from high school.
Parents play a huge role in teaching their children how to form and keep friendships throughout their lives. We depend on our friends in every stage of development to teach us how to control our emotions, tailor our behavior to be socially acceptable, and support us when we need help or understanding. When parents have a healthy secure bond with their children, and also have stable friendships of their own that the child sees and can emulate, it is a win-win scenario. Constant guidance through each stage of the child’s growth and social development is necessary to ensure that proper social skills are developing, any problems are addressed, and there are no emotional problems holding the child back from normal growth. Good parents know that their job does not end or have breaks at any time during the child’s life, it continues from birth to death, and it is a job to be taken seriously. I fully believe that if more parents took the time and effort to guide their children through the stages of their social and emotional development, giving good and gentle advice and support, there would be much less violence, bullying and general disciplinary problems in our youth.

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