Childhood is a time for exploring and learning about the world including the people that inhabit that world. Friends become very important to children and help to enrich a child’s life in many ways.
Childhood research suggests that children have a friend or friends are less depressed or anxious than children who do not. Further, the research suggests that siblings cannot fill in or take the place of friendships. Through friendships, children can learn how they like to be treated and how they should treat others.
Like most learned behaviors, much of what children will learn will be modeled by the adults around them. If children inhabit an environment where social competencies like generosity, cooperation and empathy are being regularly modeled by adults, there will be a strong liklihood that children will learn these desirable, prosocial behaviors.
When children are very young adults may have to look for opportunities to reinforce prosocial behaviors when children act kindly toward another child or adult. Given the opportunity, children will learn to cooperate and to share with other children. These behaviors, once mastered with a friend, or several friends can be shared with the larger group. Children raised in this way experience how good it feels to be nice to others. These children are also learning important lessons about taking care of others and themselves. In the process, children learn that words can and do hurt and name calling and teasing can make someone miserable.
While playing competitive games with children can teach them many important lessons, it is a model based on someone winning and someone losing. It can be helpful to teach children how to play cooperative games where the entire group or several small groups work toward a common goal. In this model, the group wins together. This model also offers an opportunity to discuss different levels of success or winning. For example is winning at all cost worth hurting or losing friends while achieving a personal triumph? As children get older, competition can be more reasonably experienced by the child and better managed.
As teachers, coaches and other professionals that regularly work with children will tell you, a child’s home life can have a dramatic influence on how the child behaves out in the world. One researcher described the influence of home in this way, connected children feel more secure and less angry than peers who are unconnected. The unconnected child functions from an interior conversation that is angry, fearful and often selfish.
I was running an adventure group and part of the first day was to step into the circle and say something about yourself. A young girl stepped into the circle and said, “Everyone is afraid of me and I like it that way.” I was taken aback by her revelation but quickly realized that she was being honest as the rest of the group avoided her. This amazing little girl had no insight into her own behavior and she suffered profound social isolation as a result.
If a child is raised in a home where there is plentiful anger the child may incorporate being angry as just how life is or the child may become angry because their general wellbeing is being threatened by the frequent presence of anger.
Frequently, children that live with angry caretakers will become withdrawn. They in essence, put on an angry face to protect themselves from what might be more angry people or actions. It isn’t difficult to see that a child would take these maladaptive steps in order to protect themselves and are often unable to understand that the behaviors that they have adopted make them even more vulnerable. Sadly, these children get sent many powerful negative messages from children and adults. Some responses are spoken and some are not. The angry child may be told to “stay away” or “you cannot play with us.”
The unspoken rejections may be registered as not being invited to birthday parties or being asked to stay overnight at a classmates house. These experiences are heartbreaking and serve to reinforce the angry or disconnected child’s fears of mistreatment and/or rejection. Caretakers and other adults can help the disconnected or angry child by catching them being nice or doing something for someone else. These children are not bad or broken but rather they have made adaptions to their life situation that does not serve them well at all.
There are many famous and not so examples of children who grew up in challenging circumstances and went on to be happy and productive adults. In many instances, these courageous children sought support outside their own home. As an adult you have a chance to help to change a child’s life just by being kind, patient and compassionate. For some children, you may be the only person that will give these gifts.
Remember, all kids count.
Reach the writer at Hurlburt@wildblue.net