Friendship Unplugged

Growing up in the 21st century offers children many challenges and opportunities. In addition to the academic journey that prepares our children for future jobs (that have yet to be conceived), today’s kids face full immersion in technology and the media. The opportunities for intellectual stimulation are numerous. Yet, the possibilities for social stimulation seem to be dwindling. As parents, we actively seek out ways to boost our kids’ academic, athletic and creative skills. Now, in the age of technologically immediate gratification, it’s equally if not more important to boost their social skills.

I grew up in a time when “going out to play” was defined by the simplicity of hours and hours spent outside with a few friends. We would ride our bikes, play jacks, jump double-dutch and work in our mud bakeries for hours. Our mothers each had a signal that meant, “it’s time to come home,” and we knew to play to our hearts content until we saw or heard that signal and headed inside for dinner. In those days, we didn’t have “play-dates”; we just played. We weren’t over-subscribed with a full menu of after- school activities. We looked forward to writing our own menu of games and activities for each day. Of course, that was many decades ago – a time of innocence, when parents felt perfectly fine sending their young children outside to wander the neighborhoods, play in the woods, and explore the park without adult supervision. It was also a time when children spent more “face time” with each other, engaging in conversation, creating amazing fantasies and acting out stories of their own making. Friendships were unencumbered by screens and the more modern conveniences of today, and kids’ play involved more time for practicing social skills, conflict resolution, and civility.

2012 is far from that time of innocence. Children are exposed to so many opportunities for entertainment. As a result, many parents feel pressure to keep their children entertained. The result is a population of kids who are over-subscribed with activities and social events, and a number of parents who wonder how they fell into the role of event coordinators and chauffeurs. Our children also seem to have a need for more stuff than their parents had exposure to as kids. Hand-held devices, MP3 players, the iTouch, iPad, Wii, PS3, DSI, X-box… there are so many options for keeping children busy, engaged, stimulated and entertained. Sadly, not many of these devices place our children in face-to-face situations, in which they can practice conversation, social skills and friendship skills.

Because of the many entertaining distractions available to children, parents and teachers have to be even more deliberate in their teaching of the skills that children need to be friends. We have to ask the important question: What do you need in a friend?  This prompts a child to think of the qualities that make up a good friend: kind, helpful, a good listener, someone who includes me, someone who plays with me; a friend is someone you can count on.  These are all deposits to a person’s emotional bank account. They feel good, and your child should want more and seek out others who can boost that emotional bank account with healthy deposits.  Children need deliberate instruction about the ways they make deposits and withdrawals to others’ emotional bank accounts, and how their bank accounts are also subject to deposits and withdrawals.  What are things that you wouldn’t want a friend to do?  Hurt my feelings on purpose, exclude me, ignore me, lie to me or spread rumors about me. This list of withdrawals is equally important because parents and teachers are tasked with helping children develop their advocacy skills in social situations when their bank accounts are being robbed.

Friendship skill-building also requires the healthy development of resilience.  Enduring disappointment and surviving unmet demands enables our children to grow the flexibility that they need to deal with the wide variety of personalities and characters that they will encounter in their social lives. Children have to learn that not everyone will agree with them; not everyone shares the same likes and dislikes; and not every friend will have the same values. Likewise, they begin to learn that the definition of “friend” changes as much as they do.  The younger the child, the more likely that he or she has a large group of “best friends” with whom they might engage in parallel play or in direct play.  Everyone is a friend, until they’re not.  As the child ages and develops, alliances shift and stronger connections are formed with several individuals. Sometimes these alliances are based on shared interests and commonalities. We both like to play on the swings. Friendships become a bit more prone to conflict and hurt feelings, which lead to qualifying the relationship: Well, she’s my friend; but she’s not my best friend this week. As the child continues to grow and develop, friendships sometime involve “packs” or cliques in which each member of the group has a role and identity.  You wanna hang out with us?  When navigating that social landscape, the child strives to determine her role in the group and to negotiate her social standing. Some children find a “bestie,” the loyal, trusted confidant that consistently makes emotional bank account deposits. Others find themselves yearning for that close connection, but they lack the initiative, confidence and strong sense of self needed to branch out and make new connections.

How do we teach our children to make friends? The solution involves deliberate guidance and practice. Parents can help children verbalize their understanding of what a friend does and what they need to look for in a friend. Depending on the age of the child, the language of “emotional bank account” could be replaced with the idea of filling a bucket or filling a friendship piggy bank.  What fills your bucket? What can a friend do to make you feel good?  Most important is the need to create opportunities for social interaction that involve face time—conversations, imaginative play, and situations that might require compromise with others.  In order to yield the best results, these opportunities would be screen-free and unplugged. Though most children love to watch television and play interactive video games, those forms of entertainment are not conducive to teaching appropriate communication skills such as making eye contact, active listening and appropriate body language. Nor can empathy and compassion be learned while playing Wii with a buddy.  If you’ve ever seen two kids texting each other, while sitting next to each other, you have witnessed the widening gap between communicating and socializing. Parents also need to closely monitor the television programs and movies that children watch. Even some of the G-rated fare often depict inappropriate social interactions and social aggression (teasing, taunting, and humiliating others) with a laugh track that communicates that these are positive behaviors. Children need adult help to process these types of social interactions and to tease out appropriate and inappropriate ways to interact with others.

What is the simple solution? Unplug, engage and invest in more face time. The interest earned from that investment is a child’s solid understanding of what it takes to be a friend.

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