By Devin Walker
Many people say that a good friend is hard to come by. But the main reason people struggle to make friends and keep them during adolescence and adulthood is simply because they weren’t taught how to be a good friend in the early stages of child development. It is crucial for parents to teach their children social skills early on, so that they will have healthy, long-lasting relationships. Dr. Margaret Mauzè, a Houston-based pediatric psychologist certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, believes that “teaching children how to be a good friend when they’re little builds a foundation for developing friendships throughout their lives. So when we teach them at a young age how to make a friend, how to be a friend, how to join a group, how to exit a group, all of those social skills help set them up for later success.” In the beginning stages of childhood, it’s the sole job of the parents to steer their children in the right direction until they reach an age where they can start making their own decisions with little to no guidance.
Our first friends are usually family members. Not everyone has brothers and sisters, so cousins often act as substitutes. There is definitely a sense of comfort around family, because children tend to feel like they can be who they are without being judged, especially if the relative they socialize with is the same age. At the same time, however, people who are related to us can be just as or even more critical and judgmental than those in the outside world. For the most part, family teaches us how to bond with others. After we get past the asocial stage of child development, one of the first things we learn to do with another human being is share; before we learn to share material things, we share a natural bond with our family. It’s easier to make a connection with someone when you already have something in common. Parents should encourage their children to spend quality time with relatives and attend family gatherings regularly to foster that bond.
Dr. Walker Peacock, a board-certified clinical psychologist at the Tarnow Center in Houston, TX, suggests that parents should, “depending upon what their particular faith is and what their religious center provides,” get their kids involved in faith-based youth organizations. Religion plays a major role in society as far as activating a person’s moral code. Children may learn from their parents, but parents need guidance, too. Religion teaches fellowship, discipline, and most importantly, how to treat others. Texas is located in the Bible belt, so there are plenty of religious institutions that can strengthen families and their values.
A child’s community is also influential in his upbringing. In addition to religious institutions, schools are the backbone of a community. When away from their parents, children are in the company of teachers, faculty members, and other kids at their school. This is yet another setting where children can blossom and learn what it takes to be a good friend. However, there must be a balance between academics and extra-curricular activities. Dr. Peacock further suggests that parents should get their children involved in after-school activities like sports or Boy or Girl Scouts “because we seem to be so focused on academics right now.” Undoubtedly, academics are necessary, and teach kids how to interact with each other in a different environment; however, how to be a good friend or how to be social is not typically on the lesson plan. Children are expected to do the majority of their socializing outside of school.
If a child is socially awkward, having behavioral problems, or having trouble making friends, it is more than acceptable for parents to seek out further assistance from child psychologists for the sake of their child’s future. Sometimes children someone other than their parents and other people they know to listen and objectively assess what they may be going through. This is where people like Dr. Mauzè and Dr. Peacock come in to add their expertise. Dr. Mauzè says that while “younger ages need more parental assistance” as far as learning how to be a good friend, “preteens and teenagers tend to create friendships more independently, finding friends who have similar interests.” Dr. Peacock offers his services to parents who have children that need an extra boost, socially speaking. He advises that the child “work in groups, making them aware of things that make other kids not really want to hang out with them very much, and work on strategies” to overcome social adversity.
Dr. Peacock believes that parents need to “be aware of who their kids are hanging out with and just be curious, wanting to meet their friends, so the children know that Mom and Dad are there, not being intrusive, but involved, making sure their child is making good decisions.” Even as children get old enough to make their own decisions, they still often require parental guidance. Parents should continue to nurture their children and encourage them to be the best people they can be in order to attract positive people in their life.
Although friendship is about compromising, children shouldn’t feel that they have to compromise their beliefs or values and change who they are in order to be someone’s friend. Children also need to understand that no one can be friends with everyone. Decision-making is critical because, as we’ve learned, not everyone knows how to be a good friend. Just because children are polite to each other, go to the same school, and participate in the same activities does not automatically make them friends. When it comes to friendship, Dr. Mauzè preaches “quality, not quantity” and that it is “better to have one or two really good friends than a bunch of friends who are mere acquaintances.” Parents, take heed.
Devin Walker is a Houston-based freelance writer and proud mother of two.