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Families: Inside Kids’ Social Lives

3 minute read
Andrea Sachs

Many parents lose sleep over the riddle of their children’s social life. What makes one child popular and another scorned? How can parents best foster social skills? What should a kid be taught about dealing with bullies, and when should a parent step in? These ques-tions are as old as families, but they’re taking new form and fresh urgency in an era when schoolyard arguments too often get resolved with guns. A new book–Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children (Ballantine)–delves into these mysteries with uncommon sensitivity and intelligence.

The book is the work of three formidable writers. Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist, is co-author of the best-selling Raising Cain; Catherine O’Neill Grace is a former psychology columnist for the Washington Post; and Lawrence Cohen is a psychologist and the author of Playful Parenting. Their collaboration occasionally belabors points that most moms and dads already know. For example: “Children…silently sort themselves into popular, accepted and rejected categories.” But it includes plenty of insights and case studies so that parents will come away with ideas they can use. A few key points:

THINK TWICE BEFORE YOU MEDDLE IN YOUR CHILD’S SOCIAL LIFE Most kids wince at the idea that a parent will get involved in their dealings with friends and classmates. They’re afraid that the intervention will boomerang. They don’t trust a parent to catch the subtleties of the situation. And for good reason, say the authors. “Things we try to do often backfire, making things worse for a child.” What can a parent do? Listen sympathetically, stay confident and remember the power of your love for your child.

WHOSE CHILDHOOD IS BOTHERING YOU? If you’re tied up in knots about your child’s social life, make sure it’s not because of your own bad memories. Says author Thompson: “Whenever I have very upset parents in my office talking about their child’s social ostracism, I always ask, ‘Did something like this happen to either of you?’ It is like opening the proverbial floodgates as the memories of social cruelty pour out.”

PEER PRESSURE CAN BE GOOD Most parents reflexively say peer pressure is bad. But that’s hardly the case, say the authors. Parents want their kids to be influenced by friends as long as the friends do their homework and are well behaved. Parents hate peer pressure only when it involves things like drugs and sex.

NICE KIDS, LIKE DOGS, CAN TURN NASTY IN A PACK Ever notice that your child acts like another, less responsible person around his friends? “The presence of the group, and kids’ need for acceptance at any price, gives individuals ‘permission’ to drink more, act reckless, and show poor judgment,” the authors write. “Most importantly, however, the presence of the group seems to diminish the sense of morality and individual responsibility that children possess.” Another reason to pay close attention to which pack your kid runs with.

STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE KING AND QUEEN OF THE PROM It’s a high school cliche–the quarterback and head cheerleader reigning over the commoners. And so it will always be, say the authors, who urge parents not to worry about it. “Most children find in due course that their unique abilities and qualities are valued–by someone–even if they were dismissed or rejected by the dominant cliques.” And that someone should always include their parents.

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