Can Sarah Come Over?
by Win and Bill Sweet
When Betsy came home midmorning from a sleep-over, her first words were, "Can
Sarah come over?" Mom quickly answered affirmatively and Sarah arrived within
minutes. When Sarah had to leave, Betsy made a string of phone calls until
she found yet another friend who could play. Betsy promptly left, telling her
Mom that she would be at Jennifer's house for the rest of the day.
In less than an hour Betsy arrived home again, quite sullen and out of sorts.
When her mother asked her what was wrong, Betsy replied angrily, "Jennifer
said a picture I drew was dumb." After consoling her briefly, Mom turned to
us with, "It's hard sometimes, but isn't it nice that Betsy has so many
friends?" Our silent answer was, "Well, that depends."
This family asked us to visit, watch the family dynamics, and give them
suggestions for improvement. We watched with interest Betsy's almost frantic
attempt to be with friends all day long on this Saturday. When children seek
constantly to be with friends, it is wise to ask, "What is driving that
need?" Usually it is driven by the parents' fear that their children won't
be o.k. unless they have lots of friends.
Later we learned that Betsy's mother judges her own self-worth, at least in
part, by how many friends she and her children have. This pattern had become
a major factor in her parenting and was weighing on Betsy. She is learning
that the only acceptable use of her free time is being with friends.
But is this obsession with many friends a valid judge of one's emotional
well-being and value as a person? What is natural and comfortable for Betsy?
What did she want to do? Had she ever had the opportunity to freely choose?
Perhaps Betsy would be happier and more content balancing the time with
friends with time by herself.
Humans are gregarious creatures by nature, but also by nature, we thrive on
some time to ourselves. Free of the cultural influence to fill all time with
friends, most adults and children will find a good balance for their lives
that includes some friends and some solitary time to just be.
In another home Kevin came in from outdoors where he had been playing with
the neighborhood children. He dawdled as he came into the house, then slammed
his shoes into the back of the closet and bopped his little sister on the
head. This brought a reprimand from Dad to which Kevin replied
discourteously. Dad, now angry, told him he couldn't have dessert after
dinner. Kevin loudly complained, then charged into the family room, picked up
a plastic truck and crashed it violently into another toy, damaging it.
Mom sighed and remarked, "Kevin can't seem to come in from playing without
being really nasty. We must do something to correct that behavior."
We responded, "But isn't the behavior an indication that something is wrong
in Kevin's environment? Perhaps it has been too much pressure to 'perform' in
the presence of friends too much of the time. Would it be a good idea to have
family activities some of the afternoons that are fun for Kevin, rather than
his playing with the neighborhood children every day?"
Mom answered with alarm, "Oh, we can't do that. He has to learn how to get
along with people, and being with other kids is the way to do that."
Well, is it? It didn't seem to work in Kevin's case. We happened to look
outside during that afternoon's playtime just as Kevin and another boy were
yelling at one another, and each trying to take possession of a mini-bike.
What kind of relationship skills was Kevin learning during playtime? Probably
not the best kind. Could his tense behavior after he came in be a result of
stress generated as the children were "playing" together?
In our common culture it is assumed that an indication of children's
well-being is frequent participation in peer groups. Many parents push their
children in that direction. The children's desire to win approval from Mom
and Dad is sometimes the only motivation for their requests to be with
friends. Through all of this, children absorb the judgment that they are
somehow lacking in value as a person unless they have lots of friends.
Sometimes the effort to fulfill their parents' "friendship requirement"
places such pressure on children that they take on great stress, bad habits,
hurt feelings, and emotional baggage.
We often observe that parents are more concerned about their children getting
A's than they are about their children's emotional well-being in the social
environment. Therefore, almost no time is reserved by parents for conscious
modeling and sharing of the skills necessary to navigate a safe path through
the uncertainties of our culture's social scene.
A beautiful and gracious teenage girl told us that she spends hours every day
worrying that people won't like her, that she offended someone, that she
didn't say the right thing, that she wore the wrong outfit, that her best
friend will dump her...... This agony is an unfortunate waste of her energy.
Instead of pushing their children into unproductive and stressful
friendships, parents could better help them develop healthy relationships by
guiding them to recognize and cherish their own immense value as a person so
they are not tempted to worry about what others think. The other side of the
coin is learning how to be a good friend.
We all know that developing and sustaining positive relationships contribute
greatly to happiness and success in life. What qualities and abilities must
children have to experience fulfilling relationships in our modern society?
Some of the qualities are openness, tolerance, kindness, and a deeply
centered self-confidence. Some of the abilities are attentive listening,
clear thinking, fair negotiation, generous empathy, and principled action. A
cheerful attitude certainly helps as well.
And what is the process by which these qualities and abilities are acquired?
Learning relationship skills can be compared to learning how to play a
musical instrument. A young friend of ours, Cynthia, caught a vision: learn
how to play the piano. She eagerly searched for an accomplished pianist, and
asked to study with him. She learned to play the piano well and loved it. If
Cynthia had expected to learn to play the piano simply by chumming with
others who do not know how to play either, she never would have realized her
There is the expectation in our culture that children will magically learn
the intricacies of manners, thoughtfulness, and the principles of good
relationships from other children who know no more than they do, and often
less. Spending time with other children can be a lot of fun and a positive
experience for children, but it is unlikely to provide adequate, on-going
skills for harmonious adult relationships.
The best way to learn positive relationship skills and attitudes is for the
children to spend abundant time in direct interaction, companionship, and
play with loving adults who model these relationship skills and attitudes.
Adults who can model in this way honor each child's value as a person, and at
the same time, gently act as a friendship coach. They intuitively know the
truth that Dr. Seuss gave us in Horton Hears a Who! "A person's a person, no
matter how small." Children living in this type of atmosphere build personal
strength and awareness as well as acquire valuable friendship tools; this,
without sustaining emotional wounds and with joy.