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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 vision.

          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.  



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