You may have heard this phrase, “You become who you surround yourself with.” This is true not only as an adult but with our kids as well. I was the kid who was always testing his boundaries. I remember my mom telling me on more than one occasion to stay away from a certain kid in high school. She would always say, “that kid is bad news.” Unfortunately, I didn’t always listen. Then, on my sixteenth birthday, the full weight of not listening came crashing down on me. I experienced firsthand the ramifications of associating myself with someone who I ultimately knew was bad news.
Years later, as a father four times over, I am repeating the same words my mom said to me: “You become who you surround yourself with.” As you probably know, as kids get older, their circle of friends widens, and it’s hard to know all of them well. It can also be difficult to keep track of how our kids’ friendships are affecting them (especially if you have that child whose every answer is one syllable.) Every child goes through the difficult process of deciding who they want to have as friends. I have found that parents who pay attention and stay involved are far more successful at being a buffer against harmful friendships. If you are curious about what we should be looking for when we meet our kids’ friends, here are some helpful suggestions.
Here’s a pattern that might signal a problem: is your child unusually focused on pleasing a specific friend? Are they expending a lot of energy worrying about that friend getting mad at them? Your child might even have told you a story of being excluded from a group activity at this friend’s direction. This kind of power imbalance can be a huge stressor for the kid on the receiving end, and it’s often pretty arbitrary. The manipulator is just beginning to flex their leadership muscles and doing a bad job of it, I might add. Maybe they’ll eventually grow out of it, but in the meantime, keep your eye out for kids who don’t cause your child this kind of stress, and create opportunities for them to spend more time together.
One very easy way to tell if your kid’s friend is a worthwhile companion is to watch how he or she treats adults. If they’re openly rude and disrespectful to grownups, that’s a problem in and of itself, but it’s also a good indicator that there probably not very respectful to kids their same age. You may want to encourage your child to cut back on contact where possible. Affirm friendships with polite, respectful kids. Go out of your way to do extra fun things with these kids and then let your child know that you would be happy to do that kind of thing more often if they keep bringing such nice friends around.
Believe it or not, peer pressure can be a positive thing. For example, a friend might encourage your kid to move past a fear of jumping off the high diving board, so they can have fun in the pool together. On the other hand, if the friend is trying to get your kid to climb the neighbor’s privacy fence and swim in their pool without permission, not so much. Good friends take no for an answer. They don’t try to browbeat your kid into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do, and they don’t drag your kid into harm’s way.
Kids share secrets. It’s part of building trust. But some secrets shouldn’t be kept, such as when a friend does something that makes your child truly uncomfortable, or when your child suspects the friend is in danger. One good way to prevent this is to spend quality time with your children. Establish an environment where your child feels comfortable talking with you and be able to get things off their chests. Make it a NO JUDGEMENT ZONE.
If your kid’s behavior has taken a wrong turn, investigate whether it’s due to a friend’s influence. If so, there could be a couple of things going on. Maybe the friend behaves the same way, and your child is so impressed with them that they want to imitate them. On the other hand, this could be an equality issue, too. It could be your child’s interests or behavior is being mocked, in which case they are acting differently to avoid being picked on. In the company of a truly good friend, your child should be free to be who God created them to be, not less. If there is healthy competition going on, it should be the friendly kind that pushes both kids to be better.
We want our kids to grow up and be the best they can be. An important piece of this is choosing the right type of friends. I am sure you have seen the ramifications of when someone chooses well and when they don’t. Helping guide our children through this process gives us the chance to support them through tough situations, and to guide them away if a problem becomes bigger than any kid should have to handle. And teaching them how to find truly good friends will ensure they have the support they deserve, even when we can’t be there.