by Elaine Stone
BFF (Best friend forever), BFFL (Best friend for Life), BFFAE (Best friend forever and ever), FOAF (Friend of a friend), Bestie, Boo, Dawg, Home boy, Homey, Bro, Chica Soulmate, and so on, are the latest slang words for friends.
No wonder parents have trouble keeping up with their children’s social life—it’s hard enough to learn the acronyms. Friendship in our ever changing culture is difficult to navigate and children often need help figuring out how to fit in without striking out.
The sought after, yet terrifying, world of “friends” starts in the preschool years with sharing. It begins with the process of considering “others” in an egocentric world.
The Reader’s Digest Article, Help Your Child Make Friends, by Gabrielle Bauer, points out, “We put our children in school so they can learn how to read, write and calculate. But we spend little time teaching them social skills, assuming this aspect of development just falls into place. Yet, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner lists “interpersonal” intelligence as one of eight basic human aptitudes. Some children are naturally gifted in math; others are gifted at relating to people. At the other extreme are children who seem to lack social antennas altogether.”
The good news is that social competence can be improved. According to Marion Porath, a University of British Columbia professor, studies have linked social competence to academic achievement. Social aptitude can make or break careers and relationships in the adult world, adds Shirley Vandersteen, past president of the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta.
“Poor social skills put you at a greater disadvantage than poor spelling,” she says. (http://www.readersdigest.ca/mag/2002/10/friends_kids.html, accessed April 2010)
So how do parents nurture their children’s interpersonal intelligence and social skills which are fundamental to their success? Specifically, how can parents help children be or find a BFF?
1. Observe children in their world. Watch them in the yard, on the playground, in a group, in a one-on-one situation. Are they interacting, joining in, and engaging in conversation?
Dr. Michele Borba on WebMD Live, speaking about kids and friendships says, “Watch your child when he’s interacting with other children to see if there’s any little red flag. One little thing he’s doing may be stopping him from making good friends or being a good friend — like being bossy, too sensitive, always arguing, hot tempered, teasing or too shy.”
2. Address Concerns. If areas of concern are observed, address the most prominent one in a relaxed conversation. Help them work on one thing that will help them make friends or be a good friend. When improvement occurs, then address subsequent concerns.
3. Teach Social Skills. Teach children to smile. Some people are simply unaware of their appearance. Practice with a mirror and encourage children to think about smiling. Second, teach eye contact. Dr. Borba says, “Look at your friend’s eye color when they talk. Smile. These are the most two highly correlated traits of well-liked kids and we can reinforce it.”
She goes on to say, “If you were to teach one little skill that helps children look more comfortable it is eye contact. Kids like to be around friends who look interested in them.”
Another social skill that will advantage children in friend-making is manners; saying hello, please, thank you, answering questions, and a proper hand shake. These give children handy tools in making first connections and treating others politely.
An essential hurdle to jump in the art of making friends, is teaching children to show empathy and sympathy. Empathy is the ability to look at a situation from another’s perspective.
Gwen Dewar, PhD, in her article, Teaching Empathy, explains, “I think it’s a mistake to imagine that full-blown empathy will “just emerge” if you leave kids alone. What is the world like when experienced from another person’s point of view? Stories—from books or television—are opportunities for kids to practice perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? When families discuss these questions, kids learn a lot about the way other people’s minds work.”
Learning to care about others gives children a boost in being a good friend. They learn to consider others feelings and to respond.
Another skill is the ability to “read” facial expressions. It may sound frivolous, but experiments have shown that elementary school children benefit from practice. Looking at pictures together and discussing the expressions helps children learn how to label emotions and read expressions. It can also be practiced by standing in front of a mirror and having the child guess what expression is being exhibited. Learning to decipher someone’s expressions will assist children in responding accordingly, and will enhance their ability to be empathetic.
4. Coach. Parents can also assist friend-making by coaching children.
Dr. Gwen Dewar in her article, How to Help Kids Make Friends, reported that, “Victoria Finnie and Alan Russell presented mothers with several hypothetical scenarios and then asked these mothers what advice they would give their preschool children. The researchers discovered the mothers that gave out the best advice were the moms with the most socially-adept kids. What did the moms say? ‘Before making your approach, watch what the other kids are doing. What can you do to fit in?’, ‘Don’t be disruptive or critical or try to change the game.’, ‘If the other kids don’t want you to join in, don’t force it. Back off and find something else to do.’
Children face new social situations all the time. Parents are smart to coach them through the new situation before it occurs. Presenting what may happen and how they can respond helps children to cope. Helping children think of what to talk about or reminding them to look people in the eye will increase their proficiency. Even role playing can help children be more comfortable.
5. Empathize. Desire for relationships is inborn; but every child goes about developing friendships uniquely. Remind children that friends are shared and not possessed; friends can have other friends. In fact, it is healthy. Discuss the importance of friendships in life. Empathize with the ups and downs. Acknowledge that not all friends last a lifetime. Explain that being “popular” is not the same as having friends. Popularity is fleeting. Help them understand that to have a friend, a person must be one. Remind children that making a friend, whether a “good” one or a “BFF” takes a long time. Friendships do not happen overnight and predicting who their “BFFL” will be is impossible without life experience. It is great to have a “bestie”, but it is good just to have friends.
Elaine Stone, mother of three, lives in Spotsylvania. Write: firstname.lastname@example.org
Books About Friendship:
Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
Two characters explore their friendship as told through teaching the concept of color mixing.
It’s Mine! by Leo Lionni
Three frog friends learn the importance of sharing.
Franklin Collection: 10 Books includes Franklin’s New Friend and Franklin Is Bossy by Paulette Bourgeois; illustrated by Brenda Clark
The charming turtle learns about friendship and that no one likes a bossy friend.
It’s My Turn by David Bedford; illustrated by Elaine Field
Two friends learn to share, take turns, and cooperate in order to enjoy the best ride at the playground: the seesaw.
The Little Red Hen or La gallinita roja by Lucinda McQueen
This favorite tale of the industrious hen and her freeloading friends is written for beginning readers and with repetitious phrases.
My Friends by Taro Gomi
A little girl recounts in simple text all she has learned from her friends.
(http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3140 & http://www.sheknows.com/articles/810423/page:1, accessed April 2010)
The Antisocial Brain
Sometimes social ineptitude may reflect more than a lack of social education. It is now widely believed that some children have a neurological impairment that hinders their ability to send and receive social signals.
The problem is most commonly called nonverbal learning disability (NLD). Among other characteristics of the disorder, sufferers have trouble processing nonverbal information such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice. They hear words but miss the subtleties of communication — the stuff that’s between the lines.
Stephen Nowicki, an Atlanta clinical psychologist and co-author of the book Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In, calls this deficit “dyssemia.” He estimates about one in ten children has at least a mild form of it, even if they don’t have NLD. To help boost their weak social circuitry, Nowicki suggests turning on a TV sitcom, then muting the sound. Ask the child to try to figure out what’s going on by observing the characters’ faces. “It may be very hard for children with dyssemia to do this at first, but most improve over time,” he says.
Attention to NLD is increasing among school boards. Brian Ellerker, central coordinating principal of special education at the Toronto District School Board, says suspected NLD sufferers can be tested for the disorder. And many school boards now offer special programs for these children. “The instructor spends extra time teaching them how to read faces and decode other nonverbal cues,” says Ellerker.
(http://www.readersdigest.ca/mag/2002/10/friends_kids.html, accessed April 2010)