How many times, as a parent, have you listened to your child tell you on one day that “Tommy is my best friend,” only to hear the next day, “Tommy is so mean. He is not coming to my birthday party," and then the next day, “Tommy is my best friend” again. Parents often get upset when children fight only to find that all is well the next day. Childhood friendships are perplexing to adults.
My oldest daughter, Julia, was 4 when she met Jack. Jack and Julia developed such a strong bond that they often planned for the future. As adults, they said, they would take turns living with each set of parents, and they knew how many animals they would have. The day that Julia learned Jack was moving, she was devastated. Even years later when her friends would discuss their “boyfriends,” Julia could only think of Jack. While it may seem strange to adults, the bond that Julia and Jack shared was perfectly normal.
Worrying about their child’s relationships is something with which all parents struggle. Do they have too many friends? Too few? Are children nice? Are children mean?
Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Thompson was on The Montessori School campus for staff and parent education opportunities. One workshop was based on a book he co-authored, “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.”
In child development, we see that around the age of 6, the average child becomes less self-focused and more interested in building relationships with the children around them. This newfound interest in socializing can become quite consuming for children and, because it is not a phase, frustrates educators all the way through high school. Friends and relationships are the reason that children go to school.
By fourth grade, Thompson says that most children understand what friendship is, and children typically have one to 10 friends. Five friends is average, and one is necessary. If your child has only one friend, there is nothing wrong as long as it is a mutual and reciprocal relationship.
The work of ensuring that children have healthy and safe relationships in their lives requires a partnership between parents and schools. Schools have a responsibility to the children who attend them to provide an environment where all voices are heard and respected. Parents have a responsibility to be realistic about their children’s social skills and to help when needed or step out of the way when not.
In “Best Friends, Worst Enemies,” Thompson wrote that “In addition to providing basic safety, schools have to think about producing good citizens with leadership skills, empathy and responsibility, not just people who can get a certain score on a standardized test … . Rejection and alienation can lead to suicide and /or revenge as in Columbine … . When we take a serious look at social cruelty, we have to acknowledge that its results can be fatal. Even on a lesser scale, the outcomes can be scarring. That’s why it is so crucial for schools to take a moral stand — a stand against exclusion, scapegoating, bullying, destructive cliques and other cruelties.”
Not all children who struggle socially will kill themselves or others. Many will go on to blossom and lead happy and healthy lives. Others will struggle throughout their lives with the scars from their experiences being ostracized and excluded as children. I can certainly remember how awful it felt to struggle for a place to sit in the cafeteria or to feel like I never really fit in with a group.
In a chapter titled, “What Schools Can Do,” Thompson and his co-authors laid out a list of basic principles that, when applied, can help schools to prevent “excessive exclusion and social cruelty.” All are good, but two reminded of ways schools and students are already at work making their schools better.
• “Include Everyone in the Conversation” — The Future School of Fort Smith held a student led conversation around unity and safety. A more unified campus is a safer campus.
• “Encourage Good Citizenship” — In 2016, 16-year-old Natalie Hampton created an app called “Sit With Us” to help students easily find someone willing to sit with them in the cafeteria. As a formerly ostracized student, she understood how painful sitting alone in the cafeteria can be.
Creating principled spaces that are welcoming and inclusive to all children makes the world a safer and healthier place. When students are asked for their input about how to improve unity and safety, the answers will be different from what adults think and more accurate as to what the students need. When parents truly listen to what educators tell them about their children socially, opportunities for open and honest conversations will arise. Children know what they need. Our role as adults is to provide guidance along the way.
Jessica Hayes is the director of The Montessori School of Fort Smith. Her column, Education Today, runs the second Friday of each month. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @fsmontessori.