I wanted to share one of my all-time favorite parenting books with you: Michael Thompson and Catherine O'Neill's, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. If you need a good book for the summer, it's well worth a read…and an occasional reread...as you navigate the sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, but always interesting waters of parenting.
Don't "Interview for Pain"
One piece of advice that I return to continually from this book is Thompson's warning against "interviewing for pain." In full disclosure, we have ALL been guilty of this. Imagine this: your child comes home day after day, complaining about another child's behavior (they were being mean to them, excluding them, etc.). What do you do? Well your natural instinct is likely to ask them every day when they come home from school, "Sweetie, what did x do today?" It stems from an instinct to protect your children…if someone is hurting them, you want to know and you want to make it stop! But…don't do this! It puts a telescope on the issue (oftentimes blotting out all the good things going on) and often takes away your child's agency.
As Thompson notes, children quickly realize that all bad stories they come home with about child x will be a foolproof way to get your undivided attention. And so (unintentionally or not) they begin "presenting you with facts in the most attention grabbing way possible." Thompson writes, "I believe that we live the story we tell ourselves—and others—about the life we're leading…If you constantly interview your child for pain, your child may begin to hear a story of social suffering emerge from her own mouth. Soon she will begin to believe it and will see herself as a victim. Please understand that I am not advising you to disbelieve our children, nor am I saying that you should not be empathetic…But…don't interview for pain, don't nurture resentments, and don't hold on to ancient history. Kids don't."
So what CAN you do? Here are some great tips from PBS Parents:
- Interview for COPING not pain: If your child does talk about something difficult that happened to them, don't press for every last detail. Instead, ask them what they've done to solve the situation, praise their efforts, and let them know you're there if they need you. In a lot of situations, your child doesn't need you to solve the problem…they just need you to listen or help suggest some strategies.
- Only help when your child truly needs or asks for help: In these cases, ask them "What would you like me to do to help?" or, for littler kids, make a more direct suggestion: "do you want me to…" Try to help your child figure out a solution, and reach out to the teachers for more information/support.
- Consider both sides of a story: Our kids need us to keep a cool, reasoned head when they're upset and part of that is making sure we have the full context/story. As much as you love/trust your child, their view of a situation is only one perspective, and you need others before deciding if/how to intervene.
- Have reasonable expectations about children's social skills: Children develop social skills over time, and one major way they learn is by messing up! Most JKers won't be able to play well in groups. Most 4th graders will exclude someone. Most lower school boys will hit or push someone. Most kids will be rejected by a few kids…and will be a rejecter. None of this means the child will grow up to be a bully or an entitled, unlikeable adult. And none of this means that child's parent is a terrible parent. All it means is they're little, and they're learning.
- Trust the power of friendships: Most kids figure out how to handle their circles of friends really well. They go through rejections, betrayals, etc. without long-term effects, particularly if their parents are good listeners, not "fixers." "Even when kids go through serious social upsets, they generally heal from them and will find new opportunities for friendship, love, and group acceptance." Keep in mind also that "best friends will get along, fight bitterly, and make up faster than adults. They're simply more flexible and resilient."
- Value friendships over popularity: For kids to be happy and fulfilled, they don't need popularity (that's external, fleeting, and often pressure-filled); they just need to have a handful of good friends who value them. Focus on nurturing those healthy, sweet, supportive friendships and remember that—in the long run—no one cares much about popularity.
- And last but not least—of course—identify when the issue is one that requires extra support. Michael Thompson tells us to look for physical signs of stress (difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach aches), a sudden reluctance to go to school, difficulty rebounding from a difficult situation, or lack of connectedness with any peers.