Seven-year-old James is a nice boy: sweet, goofy, athletic. He describes himself as "hyper, but serious when I need to be." He's also a bit of a people pleaser. At home, James's parents report this quality has translated into a general willingness to help and be "part of the team." At school, however, the pack mentality has led James to befriend some of the louder, more socially aggressive boys -- not all of whom have been the best influence.
Like Brian, a jokester at best, a bully at worst, and a boy James describes as "really funny, but also sometimes a little out of control." At Brian's encouragement, James has acted out towards other kids, teasing them, excluding them from kickball games, and turning off the light when they're alone in the bathroom. When confronted, James knows he's in the wrong. "First he'll try to shirk responsibility by saying that Brian 'made him do it,'" says James's mother, Susan. "But he knows: Only you are in control of you."
Susan wishes James would focus more on his friendship with shy, polite Luke. James likes Luke, too; in fact, he calls Luke "my best-best friend. He's quiet, but not too quiet." While Susan has not forbidden James from playing with Brian or having him over for monitored play dates -- yet -- she has put more effort into gently fostering her son's friendship with the outwardly nicer boy. "I tell James that he seems more relaxed and at ease when he's with Luke versus Brian, and it's true," says Susan. "I point out that he has not once gotten into trouble when Luke is around -- and doesn't that make him feel good?"
Making friends, and keeping them, is a primary activity among school-aged boys. For both boys and girls, these early friendships help define who they are and who they become. But while friendships between girls are often extremely fluid, those between boys generally endure. Says James of Luke, "I want to invite Luke to my birthday party every year for as long as I know him." Which makes young boys' friendships especially impactful -- and paying attention to them so very critical for parents.
What's tricky, of course, is that as our sons enter the school years, we no longer have as much control over the friends they are exposed to. Although monitored play dates still happen, much bonding among elementary-aged boys occurs in the classroom or on the playground. How you talk to your son at home, and how you choose to support his budding friendships, will help him make smart decisions when it comes to forming friendships when he's not under your direct watch. Here's how to encourage your son to seek out strong, safe friendships that will help him grow:
Help him define the word "friend." While it's important to give your son room to explore a variety of personality types, it's also important to take notice of -- and encourage him to take notice of -- what sorts of friends he's attracted to, as well as what shape the friendships are taking. Ask your son what he looks for in a friend. Are he and his friends equal, or is one boy more "in charge"? Which friends make him feel good? Which do not? Many children don't realize that they can choose who they're friends with -- it's not just about who wants to be friends with them.
Eventually with Susan's help, James acknowledged that although Brian was funny and engaging, what James was drawn to most was the idea that aligning with Brian was safer than not. Being friends with the bully meant he'd never be a target. Susan said she understood, but then explained how that's not a friendship. Letting your son know the friends who let him be him -- and who make him feel safe, no matter what -- are the ones worth having.
Teach him that having friends means being a friend. Encourage your son to articulate what being a good friend means, keeping in mind that what may seem obvious to you is less so for a child. After James and Brian got in trouble for pushing classmate Henry, once a close friend of James's, Susan sat her son down and asked James how he'd feel if the roles were reversed. "I asked him to imagine that he was Henry and that someone he trusted turned on him," says Susan. "He got very sad. He hadn't thought of it in that way before." Let boys know that it's okay to fight -- friends argue, too -- but that friends work together, and not against one another, to solve a problem.
Meanwhile, teach him about the importance of supporting his friends. Studies indicate that kids who perceive their friendships as supportive are more likely to grow up to be socially competent and self-assured. Take 10-year-olds Mark and Joey. The two were very close, though had diverse interests: Mark was into soccer, Joey liked to sing. While Joey eagerly attended many of Mark's soccer games, cheering on his friend, Mark did not attend any of Joey's concerts. Mark's mother, Lara, noticed the inequity and made plans to attend Joey's concert with Mark. At first, Mark pushed back -- singing wasn't his "thing," he said, and he didn't want to go. But once he was there, he was excited to see his friend perform -- and Joey was excited and grateful for Mark's show of support. In the end, it did not take much for Lara to teach her son a lesson in friendship.
Remember that quality is better than quantity.... It's easy for parents to worry if it seems their sons aren't making "enough" friends. Most boys average five close friends, but it's important to remember that there's a wide range of normal. Some boys prefer one-on-one interactions; others, a small circle of friends. Still, others may call their entire class their "best friend." What's key is to ask your son whether his friendships keep him interested, keep him safe, and make him feel happy.
...but also encourage diversity. Some boys, especially shyer ones, can latch onto a single friend. While this is normal, it's also worth encouraging your son to test out other friendships, which can help foster new interests and teach him about getting along with different types of people. Some children need a little extra support to do this. If you think your son might be having trouble furthering friendships, ask him whom he might like to have over to the house and promise to arrange. Then make the call yourself.
Step in when you need to. Early friends are the bridge between parents and the outside world, so it's important to give your son some sense of independence in choosing his friends. At the same time, it's necessary to intervene if you think another boy is negatively influencing him. But resist the urge to sever all ties between the boys or demand your son stop playing with the other child. Instead, reinforce to your son that he, and he alone, is in charge of himself. Let him know exactly what it is about his friend's behavior that you think is wrong, and that if he chooses to follow this friend's influence, there will be consequences. And that "Brian made me do it" is not an acceptable defense.
Set a good example. Parents are the strongest models for their children's friendships. Show him that friendship requires a give and take, and is defined by loyalty, dedication, and, above all, respect. In the end, you are his greatest teacher; it's up to you to show him that one of the most important choices he can make is the company he keeps.