When a child enters grade school, the social dimension becomes the focus for parenting.
This natural process is speeded up by the dramatic increase in social opportunities and
experiences when children start school.
The grade schooler must learn to relate to a much wider variety of adults, who hold
expectations for her, who hold the power of reward and discipline, and each of whom interacts in
a very individual manner. The grade schooler finds herself in a world where not all adults are
equally friendly, equally accepting, or equally enthusiastic about her potentials and capacities. To
complicate the matter, there are new friends to make, and a large number of children to choose
from when deciding with whom to play and interact. She needs to learn new social skills and
activities. How does the grade schooler learn all of this? She learns through trial and error, but
mostly through effective relationships with parenting adults. The grade schooler's relationship
with parenting adults becomes a model for healthy and productive social relationships. As we
relate to our children, so will they relate to others.
Challenges, dilemmas, and opportunities expand as the grade schooler becomes an
adolescent. Our relationship with the adolescent is even more critical. The opportunity for direct
influence is substantially reduced, while the opportunity for inappropriate and ineffective social
interaction increases. Our relationship with the adolescent stands as the major factor in how
effectively she negotiates the world of teenagers and teenage life. As we look specifically at
important parenting issues related to a child's social world, keep in mind that preschooler, grade
schooler, and adolescent are multidimensional; parenting must respond to this
FAMILY AND FRIENDS:
About the time the preschooler becomes a grade schooler, she begins to develop peer
relationships and relationships with adults outside of the family. Over the grade school years,
these outside relationships take on increasing significance; by the time the grade schooler is an
adolescent, these outside relationships compete with family relationships. As the adolescent
grows toward adulthood, these outside relationships can become more important than family
relationships. Good parenting recognizes and encourages this gradual expansion of social
involvement in ways which maximize social development and minimize growing up too fast or
too slowly. All of the problems and potentials of later relationships present themselves for
parenting when children are quite young.
It is important that children learn to be socially assertive without becoming self-centered
or inappropriately aggressive. It is also important that children be reasonably cooperative without
becoming unduly compliant. Helping children strike this social balance is difficult.
The toddler learns that sometimes mother wants to play, sometimes daddy wants him to
climb on his lap, sometimes adults and other children are interested in playing with his blocks,
but at other times he must entertain himself, not interfere, and respect the rights of other people.
In social terms, he learns about mutual rights and responsibilities and respect for the feelings and
interests of others. For example, when mother is talking on the telephone, she does not want him
to make a commotion. What if he does? Occasionally, mother will say to the caller, 'Just a
minute until I settle a little problem.' She lays down the receiver and perhaps makes him sit on a
chair, sends him to his room, or otherwise lets him know that his attempts at social interaction
are inappropriate. At other times, she does her best to tolerate the behavior until she finishes her
conversation. Once she is off the phone, though, the toddler learns in much the same way that he
should have respected mother's right to talk on the telephone without interference.
With an adolescent, the situation is somewhat reversed. Parents may need to have rules
about when the adolescent can talk on the telephone and for how long. It may be necessary to
enforce these rules. At the same time, parents must recognize the adolescent's right to talk on the
phone without interference. It is inappropriate for parents to say, 'How long are you going to be
on the phone?' or 'Who are you talking with?' or 'What are you talking about?' He may not
want to tell you. Parents need to respect the adolescent's right not to communicate.
Frequently parents set standards for social behavior but do not themselves model this
good behavior. Father asks a grade schooler, 'How much did you pay for the toy?' The grade
schooler asks father, 'How much did you pay for the new computer?' There is a problem if father
responds 'It is none of your business,' unless he is willing to accept the same response from the
grade schooler about the new toy.
Parents frequently complain about children interrupting their conversations, standing
around when adults are talking, and generally trying to butt into parental activities. Of course,
children should learn not to do this. They should be told when they are not invited. If children do
not respond to this verbal limit, parents should enforce the limit.
At the same time, children have a right to their own social activities. It is inappropriate to
eavesdrop on their conversations, or walk in on a conversation and act as if they should continue
in spite of our being there. It is inappropriate to assume that they want us to become involved in
their activities. For example, if three grade schoolers are playing football in the backyard, we
should not simply assume it is alright to become involved in their game. We should ask, 'May I
play?' Mothers should not assume they are invited to their daughter's slumber parties. If parents
have given her permission to sit with her boyfriend on the front porch, they should not eavesdrop
or be too obvious about supervising.
Parents have a clear right and responsibility to supervise the activities of their children, to
chaperone parties, to check once in a while to see what their children are doing. But they need to
do this in a socially responsible way that shows respect for the child's rights. For example,
mother has no right to involve herself in her daughter's slumber party without the daughter's
permission; but she does have the right to set rules about the party, to check once in a while to
make sure things are going smoothly, and to supervise the activities. Parents have the right to tell
children how long they can talk on the phone or how long to sit on the front porch with a
boyfriend. At the same time, though, father does not have the right to sit on the porch for an hour
and a half and talk with the boyfriend unless father and daughter agree this is acceptable. Parents
should model good social behavior, should respect the social rights and responsibilities of their
children, and should treat their children with as much social respect and consideration as they
expect from their children.
The younger a child is, the more parental supervision, limits, and rules there need to be. It
is quite appropriate for parents to directly interact and sometimes interfere with the social
activities of a toddler. They need to show slightly more recognition of a preschooler's autonomy
and rights to social respect and freedom. A grade schooler has a right to increased privacy and
social independence as the intensity and significance of his relationship with parents begins to
diminish. A toddler or preschooler may be taken to parties or social activities without a great deal
of prior discussion about whether or not he is going to go. For a grade schooler, though, such
decisions should be his, with parents only exercising a veto over activities of which they
disapprove. For example, two toddlers get into a hassle. Mother may make both children sit for
five minutes until they settle down. But if two grade schoolers get into a hassle, mother knows
that they are old enough to work things out for themselves; she does not interfere unless someone
were going to get hurt.
The parental inclination to disregard an adolescent's growing social autonomy is very real,
but remember that the adolescent is fairly independent, capable of making his own social
decisions, and ready to deal independently with his social world. It may help the tendency toward
overinvolvement and excessive control if we realize that our efforts work only if the adolescent
gives permission. We can say, 'I forbid you to date that girl.' Unless we propose to directly
supervise him twenty- four hours a day, he will see her if he wants to. There is also very little we
can do if the adolescent chooses to openly defy us.
Grounding is a good example. Parents tell an adolescent that she may not leave the house
in the evening. But suppose that one evening she simply does not come home from school, or
walks out the door about eight o'clock. Short of a physical confrontation, there is almost nothing
parents can do, unless they are willing to call the police. Grounding works with the adolescent
when her parents are reasonable and fair.
Most children have developed social independence by the time they are fourteen or
fifteen. The fact that they continue to accept the restrictions imposed by their parents has very
little to do with parental authority. Rather, it is a continuation of their earlier relationship in
which they had worked out mutually satisfactory ways of dealing with each other. If parents have
not dealt with the growing autonomy of children, the problems will grow when these children
become adolescents. If parents have overdone the restrictions and have failed to recognize the
child's growing social independence, she may rebel when she discovers there isn't much her
parents can really do. Other children exposed to overrestrictive relationships may give in
emotionally, become passive and socially nonassertive. If parents have underrestricted, the
adolescent will not respond at all to parental limits. At the extreme, she will run wild.
FRIENDS AND PLAYMATES:
How do we help our children develop independence and autonomy by the age of seven?
How do we deal with the increasing independence of the adolescent? The process begins as the
toddler learns about play and social activities. He learns to share his toys and we allow him to
play with some of our things, such as pots and pans, papers and puzzles. He learns to respect 'his
things' and 'your things.'
A child will not be able to play unless he knows how to play. He learns the idea of taking
turns from people who allow him his turn and insist on their turn. He learns to be appropriately
assertive without being excessively self-centered and aggressive from parents and other adults
who deal with his temper tantrums. He learns not to be too passive or compliant when parents
and other adults encourage him to stick up for himself, to speak up when it is his turn or when his
rights are infringed upon.
Social development begins when parents relate to children as friends and playmates. Yes,
we are parents first; but part of the time (especially with small children) we are friends and
playmates. Within this playmate relationship, the child learns how to ask someone to play with
her. She develops a feel for situations in which people do not want to play with her. She learns to
accept an invitation to play. Occasionally, daddy asks a toddler or preschooler if she wants to
play checkers, accepting the child's judgment about whether or not to play. Similarly, the child
learns to ask daddy to play checkers, accepting daddy's judgment whether or not to play.
Peek-a-boo played with an infant becomes hide-and-go-seek when she is a toddler or grade
schooler. Working puzzles with a preschooler becomes assembling models for the grade schooler
or adolescent. Helping your preschooler fix her bicycle becomes helping the adolescent fix her
car. Playing fish with a preschooler becomes playing canasta with the adolescent. Making mud
pies with a preschooler becomes helping prepare supper with the adolescent. Friend and playmate
relationships begin quite young and continue throughout our lives. Establish the playmate
relationship with your child while remaining a good parent, and the fun and good times can go on
for a long time.
Helping children select their friends and playmates begins when children are young. It is
best for children to play with children of approximately the same age, and is not a good idea for
them to spend most of their time with children significantly older or younger. A child who
spends a lot of time playing with older children gets into situations for which he is not prepared,
emotionally or socially. Similarly, children who spend most of their time playing with children
significantly younger than they will relate like younger children. Thus, we should encourage our
children to play with children about their own age and discourage their spending a lot of time
playing with children much older or much younger.
Next, we should encourage children to become selective about who they play with in their
own age group and help them develop criteria for deciding who, when, what, where, and how in
respect to play and other activities.
With whom to play? As a general rule, children should be encouraged to play with any
child their age who holds similar values; they should be discouraged from playing with children
who do not accept basic parental values of good and bad, for example, children who steal, lie,
damage property, or fail to respect the rights of other children and adults. Children should also be
discouraged from playing with children who believe it is alright to get bad grades in school, to be
disrespectful to teachers, to skip school, to get into things or go places where they should not.
Finally, children should be discouraged from playing with children who habitually fight, will not
play in a cooperative way, will not take turns or who hold beliefs about other people which are
negative and prejudiced. Children should be encouraged to pick their friends and associates in
terms of values, beliefs, and behavior standards and not in terms of racial factors, physical
characteristics, family background, economic status, or other factors over which children have no
Is it alright to forbid our children to play with specific other children? Yes, when our
children are young, say, under eight. Even then, we should do so only when we can give adequate
explanations for our decisions. No, the children do not have to agree with our reasons, but we
need legitimate reasons based on things other than prejudice or personal whim. After the age of
eight or nine, there is little we can do about who they choose as friends other than to let them
know that we disapprove of certain relationships, and why. It is very important for us to start this
process of discouraging instead of forbidding when children are about nine or ten years old. If we
do, our influence will still be effective when they are adolescents.
When to play? Children need to learn when it is appropriate to play and when it is not.
For example, children need to learn that conversation and social interaction are appropriate at the
dinner table but playing is not. They need to learn that one type of behavior is appropriate when
everyone is feeling fine. They need to learn the appropriate social behavior in different situations.
What to play? This is really complicated for children of all ages. They are inclined to play
whatever everyone else is playing, or try to think up activities which seem fun and interesting,
and are very easily influenced by others. Children need to learn that certain types of activities,
like playing ball on certain streets, playing rough in the house, are inappropriate. Along with
knowing what not to play, children need an inventory of things to play, and a creative attitude
toward play. These notions apply to the adolescent as well as the toddler and preschooler.
Where to play? Many of the same issues arise in terms of children learning where to play.
They may learn that one kind of activity is acceptable in the living room while other activities are
acceptable when playing outside; some activities are appropriate at church while others are not.
How to play? Children need to learn to play aggressively but not belligerently or
destructively, cooperatively but not passively, enthusiastically but with self-control.
The whole area of friends and playmates is extremely complicated and requires a lot of
careful parenting. It starts with parents who are good friends and playmates to their children and
who set good examples of play and social activities. These parents show discretion over the
activities and friends of younger children, and gradually recognize that the older children get, the
more autonomous and independent they will be socially. Throughout, children need to learn to be
selective about who they play with, when it is appropriate to play, and where to play. They need
to develop a wide inventory of skills and ideas about how to play, and a lot of judgment about
what to play.
It is very important that we play with our children, that we take time to get to know the
children they play with, become familiar with our children's games and activities, and spend time
talking with them and interacting with them around selection of friends and activities. If our
involvement in this social development is insufficient, children will haphazardly develop friends
and relationships and will simply go along with the crowd and go along with whatever is
happening. Alternatively, if we involve ourselves too much and become overcontrolling, our
children will not learn to experiment with relationships, to select friends and playmates for
themselves, and will not develop the social wisdom that comes through experience,
experimentation, and self examination.
GOING TO SCHOOL:
Going to school for the first time is probably the biggest single social step a child will
ever take. He is suddenly confronted by an amazingly expanded world of people and
relationships and ventures into this expanded world more or less on his own. How do we help the
child make the transition from home to school?
When the child is a toddler we begin to establish the idea that he is going to go to school.
We read to him and tell him that he will learn to read when he goes to school. We point out the
school as we drive by and tell him that he will be going there when he gets old enough. We talk
with enthusiasm about going to school, when we went to school, and when he is going to school.
If possible, we take him to school activities, ask what kinds of things he wants to learn when he
gets to school, and so on. On the other hand, we avoid conversation about how lonely he will be
at school, or how nice it is to be a baby and still be at home, or how it would be nice if he were to
stay little forever. Yes, simply establishing the expectation that children will enjoy being at
school, and that it is a really exciting time in their life will go a long way toward eliminating
difficulties in the transition from home to school.
More needs to be done, though. The child needs to be able to separate himself from his
parents. This comes from being encouraged to play at the neighbor's once in a while, being taken
to church school and left with the other children, being left with baby-sitters - intentionally put in
situations where he needs to learn to deal with and interact with other people, both adults and
For children who have had a wide variety of social opportunities and experiences, the
transition from home to school is not particularly difficult. They have already made a lot of little
social steps into the world, have had experience with being able to return home, have seen that
relationships with parents do not suffer as a result of other social contacts and involvements, and
have learned quite a lot about the give and take of relationships, outside of the family. They have
already learned something about making friends and choosing playmates, about accepting
supervision from other adults. Children need to see home as a haven, a source of security and
renewal from which they can move out to experience and explore and to which they can return
for safety and security.
What if children have not developed this orientation by the time they are supposed to go
to school? They have to be made to go to school, ready or not. If necessary, they should be
physically taken, placed in a classroom, and left there. This may seen cruel, but they have to go to
school. Good parenting does not try to compensate for errors of the past. It starts with the child
now, and moves on.
GETTING ALONG WITH TEACHERS AND SCHOOLMATES:
While the parental focus on a particular issue usually comes up early and then gradually
decreases as a child gets older, getting along with older children and adults at school is a
somewhat different proposition. Children who have had continuingly good relationships and
successful experiences with teachers and other children at school for several years may suddenly
develop difficulty with a particular teacher or with a particular school-related situation. This is
occasionally seen in juniors or seniors in high school. New and somewhat novel difficulties,
however, can come up at any age.
It is extremely important to understand that problems with teachers and other children at
school are our children's problems. Social relationships and adjustments at school are primarily
the responsibility of the child.
It is not unusual to see parents get into arguments with teachers and school administrators
over the social relationship difficulties of their child. From the parent's point of view, the
difficulties are the school's fault. In situations where parents and school personnel disagree over
the social behavior of children, the children are frequently left out of the discussions. If this
happens, the child no longer has the responsibility for working things out. Occasionally, this
same kind of difficulty arises with neighbors. Whether the problem comes up at school or in the
neighborhood, it is clear that the child needs to hold continuing responsibility for handling the
situation. The parents, neighbors, school administrators, and teachers may help, but ultimately
the child needs to deal with things himself.
When problems come up at school, regardless of the child's age or grade, we should first
talk with him about the problem and encourage him to deal with it. Usually, this works out fairly
nicely and the problems are resolved. But what if they are not? We can then either intervene
more directly or let the child know that it would probably be better if he simply tolerates the
situation and does nothing. Our initial intervention should be mild; talk with the teacher or
administrator about the problem, listen to their point of view, get their impressions, and be sure
not to threaten or accuse. Problems may develop which need more affirmative intervention. Then
we may need to go to the highest school official, the school board, or in some way appeal to the
community or courts for assistance. Such extremes do not develop very often, though. The
principle is to start out gradually, first talking with the child about the problem and encouraging
him to deal with it and then moving, step by step, through the system until the problem is
There are times when teachers and school administrators are really being unreasonable or
unprofessional, and we should not intervene, but just encourage the child to tolerate the situation;
for example, if the problem develops with only five weeks of school left. The criteria for
deciding to do nothing about a problem are not totally clear. If the problem is not interfering with
the child's overall adjustment or learning, and if it is fairly temporary, he would probably be
better off to just tolerate it. Dealing directly with the problem may only make matters worse.
An anecdote may be helpful here. An adolescent girl was on a field trip and some of the
teenagers on the bus were smoking marijuana. The school officials summarily accused everyone
on the bus of smoking marijuana and imposed disciplinary action. Some of the adolescents had it
coming and others did not. Under most circumstances, the girl and her parents would simply
have gone along with the disciplinary action knowing that it was unfair and probably
unreasonable. Fighting it would not have been worth the hassle. In this situation, though, the girl
was an honor student and was anticipating two scholarships to college. The marijuana situation
was included in her permanent record and could jeopardize her chances of receiving the
scholarships. This is a situation well worth fighting. Her parents first talked with the school
officials and found them inflexible. Then they hired an attorney who contacted the school
officials, indicating that the parents were ready to take the situation to court if necessary.
Immediately, all reference to the marijuana situation was removed from the girl's records and no
further mention was made of it by the schools. Had the parents been in the habit of threatening to
sue or threatening to take the school to court over a lot of issues, the school probably would not
have capitulated. These parents had shown the good judgment to save their action for something
that really mattered.
Teachers and school officials tend to respond very quickly to suggestions from members
of the professional community. If our child is having some difficulty at school and if neither he
nor we have been able to effectively resolve the problem, it would be well to talk with the family
doctor, someone from the local mental health service, the minister, or someone from the family
service agency. If they agree that the situation needs attention, they may be willing to contact the
STAYING AT SCHOOL:
Children should go to school and stay at school unless the alternative is reasonable and
preferable, for example, if the child is ill, or if a family member dies. School should be the choice
unless the alternative is clearly something the child should do or needs to do. This may seem a
simple point, but it is a major issue for children who have school attendance problems.
A child may develop physical symptoms such as stomachaches and nausea as a reaction
to going to school or as a way of getting out of going to school. The guiding principle is that,
regardless of the child's age, she be treated as if she is ill. This means she stays in bed all day, is
not allowed to read or play games in bed, eats soup and other light foods, is not allowed to watch
TV or listen to the radio, is not allowed to come out of the room or have other children in the
room, and may only get out of bed to go to the bathroom every two or three hours if she wishes.
This begins first thing in the morning and lasts all day. The child is not allowed to get up later
that afternoon or evening. The point is, if she is really sick, a 24-hour period of bed rest and quiet
is just what she needs. If she is in fact ill, she will not find this particularly objectionable. On the
other hand, if the illness is put on as a way of getting out of school, having to stay in bed and stay
quiet all day will be considerably less desirable than going to school. Of course, if the symptoms
are severe or if they get worse, the family doctor should be consulted. The same approach applies
if the child gets ill at school and needs to come home. Whether physical symptoms occur before
school starts or after she gets to school, responding as if she is ill saves having to decide if the
child is ill.
A child may become violent, have temper tantrums, or otherwise become upset about the
prospect of going to school or staying at school. When this happens, try to find out why. He may
be under great social or academic pressure, or he may be having difficulties with peers. Assume
that he is legitimately reacting to something quite negative or undesirable. Always start by giving
the child the benefit of the doubt.
What happens if we have given the child the benefit of the doubt, have talked with him
about the problem, have explored the situation at school, and have come to the conclusion that
his reaction is neither legitimate nor reasonable? Firmly insist verbally that the child go to
school. Surprisingly, a lot of childhood difficulties are easily resolved if we insist that the child
conform to our expectations.
What if this does not work? In this situation, negative discipline would be a mistake. If
the child's reaction to going to school is so intense that he is willing to refuse to cooperate when
directly confronted by us, the problem must be extreme. To simply force the situation through
negative discipline means we are refusing to understand. Professional attention may be needed.
Any time a child behaves atypically, we should first talk with him about the problem and
about our concerns. Then, we should talk with other people about the problem, seek professional
advice, and do what we can to be sure we understand why the child is behaving so unusually.
Until we have an explanation for the behavior, we should not pressure him to do things he
perceives as contrary to his own self-interest. Once we understand why, we can then either
correct the problem or encourage him to behave differently. With all children, but especially with
children of grade school age or older, the use of negative discipline should always be a last
approach and should be used only when it is reasonable and appropriate.
The problem of staying at school frequently becomes more pronounced in high school.
When adolescents are having difficulty with school involvement and attendance, the most likely
explanation is difficulty with the learning process or lack of interest. Whether the problem
reflects defiance or delinquency, learning difficulties or disinterest, the initial approach is the
same: talk about the problem. 'Why don't you want to go to school?' 'What is the problem
keeping you from attending school regularly?' Almost always, the adolescent response will be
literal truth. (Unfortunately, parents, school officials, and other adults are disinclined to accept
the reasons as legitimate.) The adolescent says, 'I don't go to school because I do not like
school.' Instead of a lecture, we should ask 'What don't you like about school?' She says,
'Everything.' We say, 'I hear you saying that there is nothing you like about school. Could we
start making a list of everything you dislike about it?' We can then assist by suggesting focus on
teachers, specific subjects, rules and restrictions, other adults at school, other students, and so on.
If we are calm but persistent, we will gradually get a picture of school from the adolescent's point
of view. It may be surprising to learn that this picture really does justify disliking school and
usually constitutes a legitimate explanation for why she is not going to school.
Once we understand how the adolescent feels and why, we can begin to help her think
about her options: changing to a different course of study, special tutoring, transfer to an
alternative school if one is available. In a few situations, we may conclude that school has
nothing worthwhile to offer the adolescent. Or perhaps her learning problems are so severe, so
chronic, that continuing in school will not accomplish anything.
GROUPS AND COOPERATIVE ACTIVITIES:
Group functioning in children usually begins at home, when a child learns to function as
part of the family group. For the autocentric infant, this group involvement is minimal. Still, it is
essential that all family members relate to the infant. Although she has no perception of herself as
a member of the family, older members of the group must perceive her as belonging. This
includes, for example, all brothers and sisters, regardless of age. Two-year-old brother should be
encouraged to talk with her, hold her with supervision, help give her a bath or bottle, and interact
in many other ways. This begins a relationship beneficial to both. It is equally important for
brother not to see her as an intruder or as belonging to Mom and Dad only. She belongs to him,
too. Watch as the toddler becomes more involved with the infant and starts referring to her as
'my baby sister.'
By the time she herself is a toddler, she is beginning to perceive that she is part of the
family; for example, she may be upset if left with a stranger, but not with her adolescent brother.
When the toddler becomes a member of the family as a group, she gains group status,
rights, and responsibilities. For example, she may have some say about which programs to watch
on TV, or which restaurant to go to. She also develops property rights (some things belong to
her) and rights of privacy. In addition to rights, she acquires family responsibilities, like helping
clean the house, cleaning up her own messes, and helping feed the cat.
Around the age of four, the child begins to develop other group identifications and
involvements, usually first with other extended family, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and
cousins. Then playmate or friendship groups develop or the child may become involved in
nursery school or church school. By the time the child is six, she is developing multiple group
identifications. She talks about 'my friends,' 'my class,' 'my teacher.'
As parents, we should encourage the child's group involvement and participation and help
her choose groups, but we must also recognize that group participation is the child's
developmental task, not ours. We can talk with the child about any difficulties, but only after a
careful, step-by-step process should we become directly involved in dealing with problems. Keep
in mind that a child's judgment and skill in group involvement begin at a young age. If we do
nothing to help the child with group participation until she is sixteen, it is probably too late to
start objecting to her choice of groups or activities. This is an example of too little, too late.
On other occasions, parents abuse their powers when, for instance, they insist that a boy
become involved in Little League, whether or not he is interested. Or they insist that children
participate in certain groups despite the child's protests that he is being treated unfairly.
Organized sports frequently exemplify this problem. A ten-year-old girl joins a swimming team.
She thinks this is a lot of fun, but the coach wants only to win swimming competitions. In this
high-pressure situation the young child is expected to produce, sometimes beyond her physical
and emotional abilities. Winning and competition have their value, but parents who push their
child into these situations against her will are being quite abusive.
We occasionally also see parents who want their child involved in every group or activity,
leaving almost no free time to herself.
CLUBS AND CLUBHOUSES:
Prior to the age of ten, friendship groups are generally unorganized and children show
only minimal preference for specific playmates. Around the age of ten, children begin to form
groups. Older grade school children develop best-friend relationships. Yes, younger children will
talk about their best friend, or one child with whom they prefer playing, but these younger
children also change best friends regularly. And, if their best friend is not available, they will
easily play with another child.
The older child, though, can show real allegiance to his best friend. He will frequently
talk with this friend on the telephone, will want to be involved with him most of the time in
group and play activities, and won't be involved in activities when the best friend is excluded. Of
course, if this best-friend relationship is so intense that the grade schooler can't find anything to
do when the best friend is not around, this is a problem. Equally problematic is the older child
who has no best friend nor any close friends. As an adolescent or adult, he may well be socially
isolated, a loner, uninterested in group activities. As parents, it is important for us to accept our
child's best friends and reference groups, and to take time to know these children, for these
relationships definitely set the tone for later relationships.
One of our primary responsibilities to our children is to help them select friends and
reference groups who share values, beliefs, behavior standards and interests. For other grade
school children, our involvement with and knowledge of their friends and associates can help us
have some influence on whom they pick as friends and which groups they participate in. To
ignore or underestimate this important parental task is to neglect this critically important
transition period. But beware: to be too controlling, too judgmental of friends and groups is
clearly bigoted and inappropriate. As with all parenting tasks, the right course lies somewhere
between totally ignoring our children's friendships and reference groups and giving them no
personal freedom or responsibility to select their own friends and groups. Our awareness of this
parenting task and that the task starts when children are young will aid us in dealing with our
children and their friends in reasonable and productive ways.
HIGH SCHOOL AND HANGING OUT:
Student populations of high schools divide into small groups: 'in' groups and 'out'
groups. In-group adolescents are those most accepted by and closest to teachers and
administrators. In general, they get better grades, participate in more school and extracurricular
activities, are chosen more frequently for responsible school duties, such as the newspaper or
school plays, and unfortunately come from a higher socioeconomic class. Out-group adolescents
are less involved in school activities and extracurricular activities, do less well academically, are
less favored by teachers and administrators, and are less frequently chosen for special
responsibilities. There is even a small number of teenagers who are the most 'in' of the in groups
and a few who are most 'out' of the out groups. This high school social structure works against
equal education, equal opportunity, and equal experience for all. There are exceptions to this
pattern, but nonetheless, it is quite prevalent.
How do we help our child become a member of in groups in her high school, and thus
receive the benefits of increased social acceptance, increased school and extracurricular
participation, and increased acceptance by teachers and administrators? The harsh reality is that
there is very little we can do once the child is in high school. Our adolescent is pretty much on
her own in terms of social involvement, acceptance, and participation.
There is, however, a good deal we can do in terms of understanding and influencing her
activities. We can insist she do her homework and participate and achieve consistent with her
abilities. We can support her participation in school functions and activities. We can, for
example, be sure she has time and transportation to participate in play practice, the high school
band, FFA, or the like. We can help remove any barriers to participation. Yes, we may think that
we have started operating a taxi service. This is, though, one of the things we can do. In addition,
we can develop a real understanding of the major adolescent pastime, 'hanging around.'
What is hanging around? It is when teenagers are not really doing anything specific, not
working on any projects, not getting into any real mischief or difficulty, and not doing anything
important. They are just hanging around. The payoff in hanging around is just being together.
Music is an important background for hanging around; so is relative privacy from adults. To a
limited extent, younger children are irrelevant and adults are the enemy. Adults are the people
who make them study, criticize them, set limits, hold expectations, like to nose into their
business, and do not really appreciate the art of hanging around. Will it help if we adults
understand and appreciate hanging around? Yes, it will help our adolescent quite a lot.
It is very important for our adolescent to spend time just hanging around with her friends.
We must be less rigid in expecting her to come right home from school, or explain everything
she does when out with friends. We must be a little more understanding when told she went
nowhere and did nothing with no one. We must be a little more understanding when she talks on
the telephone for an hour 'about nothing.' She was just hanging around by phone.
We can set some limits on where and when our adolescents are allowed to hang around
and with whom. We can say, 'Hanging around is fine, but you cannot hang around there.' We
can say, 'I would definitely prefer that you do not hang around with this particular individual.' If
we are willing to give reasons, calmly and straightforwardly, she will usually respect our wishes
(unless we have waited until she is identified with the individual).
This will only work occasionally. If we find ourselves frequently telling the adolescent
whom she can and cannot associate with, where she can and cannot hang out, we will gradually
find ourselves and our suggestions being less accepted. Remember that the adolescent is nearly
We can influence where, when, and with whom our adolescent forms associations more
directly. We can encourage him to have his friends come over so we can get to know them before
passing judgments. We can encourage him to be involved in church groups and other organized
activities. We might help him organize a party or group activity. And we can make certain that he
has the necessary money and resources. We can be sure that he has time to participate in
activities. It would not be reasonable, for example, to expect him to baby-sit his younger brother
every weekend night. Many activities take place on weekend nights. If our adolescent has to
work at home, the opportunity for healthy social involvement is limited. Yes, it is unreasonable
for him to stay out all night or even for him to stay out quite late with regularity. It is also
unreasonable to expect him to always come straight home from ball games or other school
In short, we can assure that the adolescent has the resources, opportunities, and parental
encouragement necessary for participation in acceptable school and community activities. We
can be tolerant of hanging around, whether at our house, someone else's house, a teenage
hangout, or over the phone. We can set some limits about where and when he is allowed to hang
out and which activities he can participate in. Occasionally, we can influence who he chooses to
associate with. Yes, the adolescent really is beyond parental control; but parental influence
within a healthy and open relationship is still both possible and very much wanted by the
adolescent. Most children want to please us, want us to like their friends, want us to be interested
in their activities, and will behave not only acceptably but in ways that make us proud.
TEENAGERS AND CARS:
For most teenagers, the first real symbol of passage into adult status is a driver's license.
At the same time, parents must recognize that their child is truly growing up when she gets that
driver's license and is thus emancipated from dependence on the parental taxi service. Access to
the family car also gives the adolescent increased peer status: it elevates hanging out to a new
level. The adolescent can now get herself to activities, has new 'power' within her group.
Parents can exercise some control over access to the car, over where their adolescent
takes the car, and can withhold car privileges. But when she gets in the car and drives away, they
have no real control over what happens, where, or with whom.
As with most areas of child development, parental involvement related to cars and access
to cars begins long before the child is old enough to have a driver's license. Parental attitudes
toward cars are passed on to a child when he is quite young. Parents should examine their own
attitudes toward driving and owning cars, knowing that these attitudes will, in large measure, be
passed on to their children.
Parents can help the young child develop habits of appropriate or inappropriate behavior
in cars. For example, placing emphasis on being reasonably quiet and sitting still, having seat
belts fastened, being especially quiet in heavy traffic or dangerous situations, or the reverse -
making a lot of noise, climbing around, ignoring seatbelts, and so on. Does the driver pay
attention to driving or does he frequently turn around and talk with others? Does she eat or drink
while driving? Does she drive after drinking? Does she stay calm in emergencies? Is it important
to obey speed limits and parking regulations? Do we pick up hitchhikers? How do we behave in
an accident? If we want our teenager to be a responsible driver, we must start when he is quite
young to help him develop appropriate attitudes and behavior.
Driver education starts before the teenage years. As parents, we help the adolescent learn
to drive just as we helped her learn to ride a bicycle, play games and follow rules, take turns and
interact cooperatively, and so on. If our usual pattern is to be calm, reasonably firm, and
persistent, helping her learn to drive will be similarly smooth. If our usual style is to become
angry or authoritarian, or to give up, this will carry over into driving.
In most states, adolescents are required to take a formal driver education course. As the
adolescent goes through driver training, all of the attitudes and standards developed over the
years toward school apply. It would be reasonable to set some minimal grade expectation for
driver training. We might, for example, refuse to sign for adolescent's driver's license unless she
gets at least a B in driver's education.
Giving and withholding driving privileges may be the last stronghold of parental
influence. For instance, getting a driver's license can be made contingent on doing well at school,
being cooperative at home, and generally following the rules and meeting the expectations of
parents. If there are behavior difficulties, a parent might say, 'You will not be able to get a
driver's license until your behavior has improved for at least two months.' Getting a driver's
license then becomes the payoff for better behavior and a more cooperative attitude. Parents also
can temporarily take away the driver's licenses and driving privileges. They can regulate (to some
extent) when the adolescent is allowed to drive. But be careful - this can be overdone.
Teenage drivers generate a lot of anxiety in some families. It is still true, however, that
most teenagers are careful and responsible drivers, follow the rules, and behave themselves.
Nonetheless, teenagers will make mistakes or have accidents or behave inappropriately once in a
while. This is all part of learning. If these problems occur, it is important to stay calm and resist
impulsive reactions. Even a serious accident or rule violation is not, by itself, reason for alarm. If
we talk with the adolescent about the problem and let her know it is serious, we can rely on her
good judgment to assure the problem does not come up again. If problems do recur with
frequency (even minor problems), we can exercise some direct influence over driving privileges
and in this way, keep things from getting out of hand and help the adolescent avoid bad driving
EXTRACURRICULAR AND OTHER ACTIVITIES:
Earlier we focused on the shift from family to friendship and reference groups. Here we
want to focus on extracurricular and other organized activities from the perspective of the
motivations, advantages, and disadvantages of participation. There are four very important
factors related to a child's involvement in organized activities, namely, motivation, advantages,
disadvantages, and the proportion of time and energy appropriate to such activities. Let us
examine these four factors individually.
With the preschooler, motivation comes initially from the parents. They think that the
preschooler should be involved in church activities, organized playground activities, nursery
school or preschool groups, story groups at libraries, and so on. For the grade schooler,
motivation also comes from peer pressure, school and community expectations, and from the
child's own desire to be involved in the grade school community. For the adolescent, all of these
sources of motivation continue, with the pull of peers, and dating relationships becoming quite
Why do parents want children to become involved in organized activities? First they think
that the preschooler will pick up skills and attitudes which will be useful when he goes to school.
They also may place value on the content of what is being learned, such as religious information
and attitudes. Next, parents think that getting out and interacting with other children will help the
preschooler's social and emotional development. Finally, parents feel the child should have all
the social opportunities and advantages available and that participation will lead to greater
acceptance by others. These factors are legitimate. To ignore them is to neglect the child. To keep
children at home and avoid any involvements in such activities neglects their social and
emotional development and denies them the opportunity to have healthy group experiences away
We should not place undue emphasis on being involved in organized activities. One or
two such activities is good; beyond that they may take up too much valuable time and energy. If
your preschool or grade school child is not involved in any organized or extracurricular activities,
we might want to consider the possibility of their becoming involved in at least one such outside
activity. Of course, if they are regularly involved in play activities with other children,
involvement in an organized activity may be unnecessary. We should also give careful attention
to how much of a child's time is invested in organized activities. For the preschooler, two or three
hours a week is good (excluding a day care or babysitting program). For the adolescent, more
than eight hours a week of extracurricular or organized activities is questionable. Between the
preschool and the high school years, there should be a gradual increase in the amount of time
spent in extracurricular or organized activities. Yes, a high school student may be involved in a
play, the marching band, the school newspaper, and an athletic team, and may need to be
involved for considerably more than eight hours some weeks. Over the course of a year, however,
an average of about eight hours a week is probably enough.
Participation in extracurricular or organized activities should be at least as important to
the child as to us. If we have to push him to go to meetings, then we should examine why it is
more important to us than to him. If the child really wants to be involved, feels that it is his idea,
and is willing to invest the time and energy (and if we find the activity acceptable) then we
should encourage him to participate. If he is reluctant to get involved, we might encourage him to
try it for a while to see how it goes. We should stop pushing if it seems we are more motivated
than he is, or if his motivation is coming from someone else. Basically, then, we should place
some limits on what kinds of activities and how much our children should be involved. We
should very carefully examine our motivations and theirs.
Do extracurricular activities build character? For instance, we hear coaches say that
athletic competition builds character, the implication being that people who are not involved in
athletic competition have less character. This is nonsense. Well-run athletic programs present
many opportunities for healthy competition, fair play, hard work, camaraderie, and team effort.
But so do lots of other things. Character formation primarily takes place during the preschool and
early grade school years and is certainly not affected much by whether or not a child is later
involved in athletic competition. No, involvement in organized or extracurricular activities does
not have much to do with building character. The advantages are mostly social and educational.
The disadvantages in extracurricular or organized activities are many. Everyone involved
is not successful, not all get recognition for their achievements, or derive in-group status as a
result of participation. Involvement in extracurricular or organized activity may, in fact, have
more disadvantages than advantages. The coach says, 'Everyone gets to play.' By that he means
if the team is way ahead or way behind even the worst player will get to play, since it makes no
difference in the outcome. In this situation, getting to play may be fairly demeaning. In large
schools, everyone in the band gets to play, but not everyone can be in the band. For some
children, then, involvement in extracurricular or organized activities only gives emphasis to their
marginal social status.
Should a child be encouraged to avoid such activities? No, but it is quite important that as
parents we remain aware that just being part of the group or activity does not necessarily give her
the advantages of full participation. At times, it may be appropriate to say, 'If you are not going
to get to play, if you are not going to be really involved in the activity, you may want to think
about using your time and energy in other ways.' If the child seems to be really enjoying the
activity, does not seem too upset about marginal involvement, seems to be accepted by the other
children and adults, and wants to continue participation, then we should give her our
encouragement and support. Nonetheless, we should give her ample opportunity to use her time
and talents elsewhere. Involvement in organized activities is for the child's benefit, not ours.
As parents, we must be careful how we deal with the adults responsible for
extracurricular programs. While most extracurricular activities are organized in terms of success,
achievement, accomplishment and recognition, the activity should never become more important
than the children. Adults who run such programs should never place more priority on winning
than on relating to and working with children. Do we judge the band director by how well the
children march or by how much the children learn about music and how much fun they are
having? Do we judge a recreation program at the park in terms of how many children complete
their projects and how well the projects are done, or do we judge the program in terms of how the
children seem to enjoy the program? It is neither one nor the other. We should judge the people
responsible for these programs by both the accomplishments of the program and the way they
relate to the children.
TEENAGERS AND DATING:
Fundamentally, dating is nothing more than a teenager's spending time with a teenager of
the opposite sex. In this sense, the teenager who says 'I have a date' is saying nothing more than
'My friend and I have agreed to spend some time together.' We need not automatically equate
dating with sexual activity or romantic interest. Were it not for the apprehensions about romantic
interests and sexual activity, few parents would object to a child's having dates.
From a more traditional perspective, teenage boys and girls develop physical attraction
toward teenagers of the opposite sex. They spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and wondering
about love in an adult heterosexual sense. Around the age of thirteen, this natural attraction
combines with intense curiosity to motivate most teenagers to develop more than casual social
relationships; flirting, hanging around together, doing things together, going to parties or school
activities together, and finally, paying more or less exclusive attention to each other, that is
dating. Let us look at how children become involved in such dating.
Preparation for dating starts when a child is four or five and gradually progresses until she
is dating a specific member of the opposite sex, around fifteen or sixteen years of age on the
average. Some teenagers reach this point slightly earlier, others somewhat later. Dating does not
begin at a specific chronological age. Our judgment should be based on her social and emotional
How can parents help young children develop healthy boy-girl relationships in later life?
First, they can set a good example in their relationship with each other and their relationships
with other men and women. In addition, parents can encourage relationships characterized by
mutual respect, mutual rights, and mutual sensitivity.
We must not place undue importance on a youngster's relationships, nor treat them as
cute. For example, the mother of a six-year-old boy thought his relationship with the little girl
down the street was 'so grown up.' She encouraged her son to buy gifts for the girl, invite her
over to play, to go on family excursions with him, and to invite her to stay overnight, with both
children sleeping in the boy's double bed. The error was to encourage the children to interact in
ways far beyond their age level. The mother said, 'There is nothing wrong with this; they are
only six.' Will she still think the behavior appropriate when they are twelve, or sixteen? Of
course not. When a relationship is not appropriate for older children, it should not be encouraged
to begin with.
Next, we can discuss with our child appropriate and inappropriate boy-girl behavior.
Children should learn to be assertive with each other without being overly aggressive. This
includes boy-girl relationships. Girls should see that it is alright to compete with boys; boys
should understand that girls are sometimes better at sports, and so on. We help our children learn
to deal with male-female relationships by teaching them respect for social customs, by helping
them relate to members of the opposite sex as people first, and by helping them to be equal
participants in relationships.
Suppose our child has a healthy attitude toward members of the opposite sex, can relate in
an assertive and comfortable way with them, gives and expects to receive respect and
consideration, and is able to talk and work and play. Are there other ways we can help him
prepare for dating? Yes, we can give our permission to participate in boy-girl parties, and to do
things where boys and girls interact in groups. Older grade schoolers and young adolescents need
boy-girl experiences as part of learning about more intimate relationships. We should be
concerned about how often these experiences occur, under what circumstances, where, when, and
most importantly with whom. The emphasis initially should be on group participation, games,
doing things during the day rather than at night. Help the child become involved in boy-girl
relationships in a gradual but progressive manner. It will reach the point where dating is no
longer new, or unusual, but is rather an extension of what he has already been doing.
Younger teenagers might ask their friend of the opposite sex to watch TV in the evening,
or to go along on a family outing, or to go for a walk during the day. We should also allow her to
go over to someone else's house or go on an excursion with someone else's family. In this gradual
way, our teenager begins to date and to be involved with specific members of the opposite sex.
Almost all children find this approach acceptable, although they may let us know it is not their
first choice. They might rather date like older teenagers. We are saying, 'Yes, you can date, but
with certain restrictions.'
Dating is something that a teenager becomes involved in gradually. This gives us ample
opportunity to speed up the process, slow it down, modify the rules a little, and so on. Since it is
gradual, both we and the teenager can work through our feelings, learn from trial and error, and
basically see how it goes, a little at a time.
This discussion has assumed that our teenager is interacting with teenagers of
approximately the same age and socio-emotional-sexual level. Real problems develop, however,
if our teenager dates people considerably older or considerably younger. For example, a
thirteen-year-old girl should not be allowed to date a sixteen-year-old boy, because he is at a
different place in terms of sexual behavior, sexual aptitude, social and emotional development.
Ideally, our child should only date someone within one year of her age. This does not guarantee
that there will be no problems, but it does make the odds considerably better. Since the sexual
development of girls is earlier than that of boys, older boys usually want to date younger girls and
vice versa. A difference of more than one year is usually unacceptable.
Parents object for a lot of reasons to the friends with whom their children associate and to
the relationships which their children develop. Perhaps the issue first arises when we become a
little more selective about whom our children are allowed to stay overnight with, or whom they
are allowed to have stay overnight with them. Maybe we start by making more positive
comments about certain associates and less positive comments about other friends. However it
gets started, we subtly or not subtly let our children know that we find some children more
acceptable than others, that we approve of some relationships, and that we do tend to divide the
world into those with whom it is alright to associate and those with whom it is less acceptable.
Just as we do not want our children to associate with rebellious, delinquent, antisocial children,
we also do not want them to associate with passive, socially conforming 'goodies-goodies.' We
know that healthy social development lies somewhere between these extremes.
Children occasionally associate with only one or two children. This is unhealthy, since
many friends and associates give a broader social experience with different people. This broad
social experience will expand their interests and their ability to deal with relationships and social
Children associate with people whom they perceive to be like themselves. When we
disapprove of their friends, what we are actually saying is, 'They are not like I perceive you to be
or want you to be.' If our child associates with people very different than we want, the real
problem is that we do not understand our child very well. Our perception of her is different than
her perception of herself. Let us call this image disparity.
In addition to image disparity, it is quite possible that we are misunderstanding the friends
of our child. We think they have inappropriate values, or are involved in unacceptable activities.
Maybe we have made these judgments on unsound grounds, for example, being from a poor or
wealthy family, personal appearance, style of dress, personal habits, and so on. We may have
made the judgment based on rumors or things we have misunderstood. Let us call this a problem
Next, we may accurately understand that the other children are involved in activities
unacceptable to us. Our children may even agree, but feel that their friends and associates also
have some good qualities and are able to form good relationships within limits. Our child relates
to these people in a limited way, under certain circumstances. He sees no problem with this and
is trying to tell us that he can handle himself and is not going to get involved in unacceptable
activities. Let us call this problem limited faith.
Finally, our child may be involved in a relationship we find quite acceptable. The
problem we feel is that the relationship excludes other social experiences or that the boy friend or
girl friend is becoming too involved. Let us call this a problem of exclusivity.
Let us look first at image problems. If we are having difficulty accepting our child's
friends and associates, we should say, 'But they are not like you.' This will let us know if there is
an image problem. Gently tell the child how you perceive him and his friends. Ask him to tell
you how he sees himself and his friends. You can thus start to explore the image problem. If it is
severe and continuing, professional counseling is in order. You and your child need to talk with
someone who can help you better understand your child and can help your child better
understand who he is and who he wants to be.
Misperception is a more likely problem. You and your child have about the same image
of her. But you see her friends differently than she does. Do you really know her friends? Have
you talked with them, invited them to your house or asked your daughter to invite them; have you
been involved in situations where you can get to know your child's friends? Get to know her
friends. You can say, 'You and I seem to think and look at your friends differently. That may be
because you know them better than I do. What is the possibility of my getting to know them
better? Would you be willing to have one or two of them over for the evening, invite one of them
to supper, invite three or four of them to go with us to a ballgame?' This shows that you respect
her judgment and perceptions about her friends and would like to have the opportunity to develop
first-hand knowledge of them. The adolescent will rarely reject this idea. In fact, she will
probably be eager to have you get to know the people she likes.
If, as we evaluate the problem with our children over their friends and conclude that there
is no real image problem and no significant misperception, we should then consider if there is a
lack of faith. Perhaps we do not have sufficient faith that her willpower, self-control, social
judgment and ability to deal with peer pressure will lead to acceptable and desirable behavior.
She says, 'You don't trust me,' and she is right. We should admit it. Then we are on honest
ground with her. (She may be a little surprised to hear us acknowledge the truth.) Once you have
acknowledged that you do not trust her, you can say, 'I see you as a reasonable, responsible,
trustworthy person, but am not sure that you have the emotional or social strength to deal with
that kind of situation. Sometimes doing the wrong thing or getting involved in unacceptable
activities is very tempting; sometimes the pressure is too hard to resist. Can we at least talk about
it?' Having started on honest ground, having not become accusing or threatening, and having
approached her in a reasonable way, the likelihood is that she will discuss the situation with you.
Once you talk with her about it, she can understand your feelings, can look more carefully at the
social and emotional problems, and can be more aware of situations in which difficulties arise. In
addition, there is a strong likelihood that she will reconsider her friendships.
Finally, if the problem involves the issue of exclusivity, our course is considerably
clearer. First, it usually will not help to demand the child terminate the relationship with the
special friend. Occasionally this works and parents think that they have used the right approach.
More frequently, though, the demand meets with great resistance. Such defiance can further
intensify the relationship and make it more difficult for the child to terminate the relationship.
We might say to the adolescent, 'I don't think much of that relationship and would really like to
talk about it with you. I want you to consider the possibility of giving it up, but am only
suggesting that we talk about it to see what ideas we can come up with.' Beyond that, we should
say yes but set conditions, like how often or where or what. If he really wants to see her, he will
have to follow the rules.
Occasionally a couple does 'fall in love' at a young age and the relationship matures very
nicely over time. Most often, though, it does not work this way. If we can, without anger or
accusations, set limits on how often, when, where, and under what circumstances, and not
demand that the relationship stop, the relationship will quickly run its course.
By the age of twelve or so, a child is choosing his own social involvements. Parents can
compare their image of the child and his relationships with this image. In addition, we can try to
avoid misperceptions of his friends, to work through any lack of faith in his judgment and his
ability to deal with social situations. Finally, we can set limits on when, where, and how often
particular relationships occur.