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The Friendship Factor

What your child's friendships tell you about his spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being

A mother once asked me about the mental health of her son. He had gone through some difficulties, and she wanted to know how to gauge his progress. Most of his troubles were clearing up, but she wondered about his overall development. What tests could I give him? What measures of performance could tell her about his mental state?

I said, "Tell me about his friends."

At first she didn't understand the seriousness of the question because it seemed so "non-technical." But as we discussed that simple subject, she began to get a much better read on her son and understand why it was such an important matter to explore. A child's friendships are much more than a reflection of his or her social skills. They are a reflection of that child's spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being.

Making Connections

While most of a child's significant character formation happens within the family, a child's interaction with friends is an important element of growth. It is with friends that a child learns to utilize what he's learning at home and put it into practice, establishing relational skills for the future. It's primarily through friends that a child solidifies the ability to make connections with other people.

It's important for parents to be tuned in to a child's capacity to make and keep friends in the world of play and school. I remember one life-changing incident with a friend's son. The child, Tim, had a pal over to play after school, and soon my friend could hear her son getting louder and louder, sounding very pushy about having his own way. She could tell that he wasn't doing much to share the agenda with the other child. At first, she wanted to go referee, but she held back to see what would happen.

Before long, things got quiet. She went in to the backyard and found her son alone. "Where's Jason?" she asked.

"He went home," her son replied.

"Why? Seems kind of early," she continued.

"I don't know. Just did," said her son.

But she knew better. "Tim, did Jason leave because you wouldn't share or let him have some choices?" she asked.

"I guess," he confessed.

"How do you feel now?" she asked.

"Okay," he said unconvincingly.

"I'm going into the kitchen, but I want you to sit out here and think about something," she said. "You can always try to get your own way if you want, and many times you will. But what will happen is that you won't have anyone to share whatever it is you want to do. People don't like to be around people who don't share. If you don't want to play alone, then think about how to give other kids a chance to make some decisions, too."

This mother had seen that Tim's ability to form connections with other kids was in need of a tune-up. This playtime gave her the opportunity to intervene. It changed Tim. He realized that if he was going to have friends he had to work on not being so selfish. But the point is not that kids can be selfish. The point is that Tim's mother saw that her child's patterns in friendship are the start of lifelong patterns that need to be observed and coached. Tim would need friends in life, and childhood was the time when he was learning how to have them. Tim's wise mother entered his world of friends in a timely manner, diagnosed a problem, and helped him grow.

Take a close look at the kinds of connections your child is forming. Is he bonding with other kids or is he showing signs of being a loner or feeling alienated? It's fine if he's not gregarious and only has a few friends; that's more of a personality style than a problem. But if he's not making any significant connections at all and always prefers to be alone, that is a sign that you'll want to take seriously and find out if there's a problem.

What to Look For:

? Seeking other children for play and companionship
? Kindness
? Being able to show vulnerability
? Sharing
? Long-lasting bonds with a few other children
? Altruistic signs toward other kids

Developing Boundaries

Friendships are also the arena where children learn to establish good boundaries. In the world of friendship, children will be subject to peer pressure. Their friends may try to push them into things they don't want to do or know are wrong. As challenging as these pressures may be, they are a learning opportunity that parents can use to teach their children to assert themselves and stand up to things that are not right.

I remember one mother seeing that her child was unable to stand up to a kid in the neighborhood who was sarcastic and always hurting other's feelings. Her son would give in to the other child, and then seem sullen after playing with him. She talked with her son and asked why he seemed to feel so bad after playing with this other boy. Her son admitted that he didn't really like the other child, but he was afraid to say no to him. That was a starting point for them to work together to develop and maintain good boundaries.

A person's boundaries are rooted in the ability to remain self-directed and not be overly influenced by others. In the world of peer pressure and friends, children are forced to deal with boundary issues every single day. Establishing good patterns now will be invaluable as children move through their teen years and into adulthood.

What to Look For:

? The ability to say no to pressure from other children
? The ability to assert an opinion or desire, even when others might disagree
? Self-direction in knowing what he or she wants and not being defined by other kids
? Ability to stand up to hurtful behavior from other children

Learning Acceptance

The world of friendships also helps your child learn how to fail and deal with his and other's imperfections. In play, he or she learns to lose. One little boy I knew developed a habit of leaving neighborhood baseball games every time he missed hitting the ball. He would just wander away from the game. Pretty soon, the adults caught on to this pattern and intervened, making him stay and continue even after he had made a mistake. Slowly, he learned that striking out was not the end of the world and that he could continue in the game even if he was not performing perfectly.

Children feel an enormous amount of pressure to excel. Through friends, they learn that they don't have to be perfect, but just "good enough." If you see your child hanging around friends who have to be the "best" at everything, have extreme performance pressures, or are striving to be better than everyone else, that might be a warning sign that your child isn't comfortable with just being herself.

Sometimes this can be seen if your child is with a group that has too much pressure to have the "right" kinds of things, clothes, or other symbols of "coolness." While a lot of that is normal, there are times when the search to be ideal goes overboard. A child needs to know that who he or she is is good enough, and friendship is a place to learn that. It's essential for her to develop friendships with "real" kids who allow her to be herself.

The reverse is important as well. It's through friendships that children learn that other people have failings too. As children discover other's imperfections, they begin to develop patience and compassion. If a child is too perfectionistic or demands that other kids be a certain way, he's going to struggle to develop deep, lasting friendships.

Parents need to help children learn how to accept other kids as they are. Point to the ways having friends who are different from your child can help him or her discover new talents or interests. Talk to your child about failure, losing, and hurt. Let him or her see that these are all a part of life. Your child should also be learning how to forgive. Watch for his ability to work through conflict with other kids and both offer and accept apologies when needed.

What to Look For:

? Acceptance of himself and other kids "as they are"
? Absence of extreme pressures to be perfect or cool
? The ability to forgive
? The ability to fail and keep going without being devastated
? The ability to accept others' failures
? The ability to face problems and solve them
? A willingness to try something new despite the possibility of failure

Exploring Interests

There is also a great deal of self-discovery that takes place within friendships, particularly when it comes to learning new skills. Many children first discover an interest or talent in sports, academics, dancing, music, or other activities through their social circle. That's the way the adult world works as well: It's through common interests that adults make friends and through friends that we discover new interests. This openness to learning from others starts in childhood. Without it, a child may struggle to develop relationships throughout her adult life as well.

Watching and learning with friends is an important time of solidifying the feeling of "I can learn" for a child. That feeling of confidence and excitement is more important than mastering the actual skill. Encourage your child to develop friendships that will broaden her experiences and expose her to new activities.

What to Look For:

? An interest in learning from others
? A willingness to take an interest in friends' activities
? The ability to explore new skills with excitement
? The ability to follow through on a commitment made to a friend or a team

Friendship is one of the most important elements in a child's character development. Friendships do change over time, from the parallel play of young childhood to the interactive play of school-age kids to the deepening of community in adolescence, but these changes are all part of the learning process. It's important for parents to realize that kids take their friendships quite seriously. It's through friendship that they learn one of life's most important lessons: God works through our relationships. When those relationships are going well, when we are able to form them, keep them, and make them work, then life is healthier and more fulfilling.

Your child's friendships are one of the most spiritual activities he or she will engage in. Teach your children early on that friends are a gift from God. We should never take them for granted, but nurture them as the greatest treasures on earth. As Proverbs says, " A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need" (Proverbs 17:17). To have friends is indeed an eternal thing.

Your goal is not only to help your child solve specific problems along the road of friendship, but to help him develop the skills to build friends throughout his life. Children need your help to learn how to connect with others, to stand up for themselves, to be comfortable taking risks and failing, and to learn new skills. If they do those things in their early friendships, they will be able to do them throughout their lives.

Dr. Henry Cloud is the co-author (with Dr. John Townsend) of Raising Great Kids and Boundaries with Kids (both from Zondervan).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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