When I was a kid in elementary school I had my best friend and then my “second best friend” – each identified and aware of her rank. In some seasons – say, third grade – I probably had a third and a fourth too. At summer camp I was inseparable from my two best camp friends – we called ourselves the three musketeers. This kind of thing is likely not news to you since you probably had similar friendship-ranking structures of your own.
We’re starting to get into this kind of thing with our son, nearly 5 years old. He has some great friends and enjoys them, but he’s prone to comparing them to each other, stating preferences for the one who’s not there, and general fickleness. I notice that he’s on both the giving and the receiving end of the fickleness, which shows me that he’s in good company among others his age.
I find this terrain somewhat difficult to navigate. On one hand I want to encourage him to connect with other kids, develop friendship-building skills, help him appreciate “good friend” behavior, and learn how to navigate less-than-ideal social situations. On the other hand, I want to get out of the way so he can experience human interactions for himself and learn to work things through on his own. This latter goal seems particularly important since he’s not in preschool and spends ample time with his mom and sisters. I want to make sure he has opportunity to sort through relationship stuff with his peers without his mom forever standing over his shoulder.
My mom recounts advice she received as a young mother, recommending that she make sympathetic “hmmmm”ing sounds when my sister and I rattled on endlessly about our social interactions. Previously she’d felt somewhat hostage to our continual discussions about the ever-changing ebb and flow of our peer relationships- becoming emotionally invested in a way that she found ultimately unhealthy to her mothering and our larger needs. The “hmmm”ing allowed her to be present and us to feel heard, and it sufficed.
Some of this is necessary and right. We must be present and aware without hovering and over-inserting ourselves. So when my son has a ball with Jackson one week at Sunday school and doesn’t play with him at all the next, I don’t worry about it. Likewise when a couple of the boys in our preschool co-op get along better together (mostly because their families spend ample time together) than he does with either of them. I know he’d prefer if he felt more on the inside of that dynamic, but such is life. There are other kids he can play with, so unless there is overt rudeness or exclusion, I try to stay basically uninvolved.
Yet I do thinking it’s pretty critical to teach about friendship in a concrete and direct way too during our kids’ formative years. When my son mopes that his favorite friend won’t be there, I tell him that my three best friends live across the country – but that God has given me some wonderful friends here in our town that I can enjoy being with. I explain my choice to be thankful for the friends God’s given me instead of complain about not getting to see my closest friends more. In a world where the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are a template to many young people about what friendship looks like, we must proactively provide instruction and modeling about healthy and godly friendships.
More importantly, we talk about friendship in kids’ real-life terms. A good friend is kind even when others aren’t. A good friend includes his friend even when someone more fun comes along. A good friend loves selflessly and treats others as he wishes to be treated. A good friend, ultimately, is willing to lay down his life for his friend.
This week we had a teachable moment on this point. We were hosting playgroup, and the 4-year old daughter of our next-door neighbors attended the group – an unusual participant. This family has been basically our closest friends for the two years since we’ve lived here, and my son and this little girl have spent countless hours playing and riding bikes together. She was the first to arrive at our house, and after a few minutes my son said to her: “I’ll play with you now, Natalie, but when Mason arrives I’m going to play with him.” Natalie, to her credit, was fairly unphased by this rudeness and indicated her intention to play with my daughter instead. And to my son it was simply a true fact that he was stating – he’d rather play a boys than a girls. I, on the other hand, was not about to let that stand.
Beyond apologizing to Natalie, my husband and I used the incident to teach about friendship. What does God have to say about friendship? “Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father, ” says Proverbs, and “a friend loves at all times.” Not just when it’s convenient or there’s no one else to play with. We encouraged him, too, not to simply not be rude to her but also to bless her. What could we do that would promote friendship with Natalie and show her that we were, in fact, thankful for our friendship? Because as always, it’s not enough just to correct for the wrong; we must seek to replace it with the right. He opted to make her a card and bake her cookies, which we did. We chose friendship themed cookies (stars, hearts, butterflies) and his card said simply: “Dear Natalie: I am glad that you are my friend.” The first of many, many such lessons I’m sure we’ll have with our kids over the years…