Parents worry about many things when their child first starts school. Will she adjust to the long day? Can he remember where the toilets are? Have I given her enough to eat? But one concern often looms even larger than all of those: Will he or she make friends?
“I was terribly nervous when my son David began Prep,” recalls his mother, Rebecca*. “He had attended a different kinder to most of the others in his class, and only knew one other person on his first day. Every parent worries that their child is going to be left out, the misfit, and I swear I spent most of first term anxiously quizzing him about whom he’d played with at lunchtime or covertly watching to see if party invitations had gone out and he hadn’t been invited.”
Friendships benefit children in many ways. As well as providing opportunities for companionship and intimacy, these relationships foster independence, help children learn appropriate social behaviours and bolster their self-esteem. As E.B. White wrote of Wilbur the pig in his much loved children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, “Sometimes at night Wilbur would have a bad dream… But in the daytime Wilbur felt happy and confident. No pig ever had truer friends, and he realised that friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world.”
Conversely, when children struggle to make friends the effects can be profound and long lasting. Recent research conducted by the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University found that children who do not establish good relations with their school peers are more likely to exhibit lowered academic performance, as well as behavioural and psychological problems. Such individuals are also at an increased risk of developing mental health problems later in life.
“For most children, making friends comes naturally,” says Zyron Krupenia, a Perth-based clinical psychologist, who has worked with families for over 25 years. “We are born social animals, and most of us intuitively know how to approach others and develop relationships.” First friendships, he adds, are often formed solely on the basis of proximity: who the child is placed next to in class, or with children of the parents’ own friends.
Such relationships usually develop spontaneously, though temperament can play a role. “Naturally shy or introverted children find it difficult, if not downright frightening, to approach others,” notes Zyron. In such cases he advises that parents can help by talking with their children about what they can do or try, the responses they might get and how to handle these. Rehearsing certain social behaviours at home such as making eye contact, speaking in a clear voice and asking to join in can also be useful.
Lyn Worsley, director of Alpha Counselling Services in Sydney and convenor of the Australian Psychological Society’s Child and Family Psychology Interest Group adds “I always encourage parents to hang around the school gate at the beginning of term to get to know other parents, their children and the teachers. Time taken off work for this purpose is time well spent, since you and your child may be in contact with these people for the next 12 years. It also means you can watch your child, see who they want to be with and then maybe ask that person home for a play or afternoon tea. These actions show children that it is OK to be hospitable and friendly, and provides a model for how they can go about making their own friends.”
Another way to help children make friendships is to encourage interests they can share with others. “When my son Andrew started school he wasn’t really into cricket,” recalls his mother, Natalie. “But it seemed as if every other boy in the class was, and that they’d spend each lunchtime either playing the game or swapping cricket cards. We could see that Andrew was getting a little left out, so my husband decided to help matters along. He took Andrew to the local park every night before dinner for weeks to practice his bowling and batting, plus bought him his own set of cards and talked to him about who the players were. It probably sounds a bit extreme, but it gave Andrew the confidence to join in the lunchtime activities, which in turn allowed him to establish his own friendships. Hopefully when he’s a bit older he’ll be able to work out such strategies for himself, but we wanted to get him off on the right foot.”
Children generally become more adept at forming friendships as they get older, and from around the age of seven or eight may actively seek out others with whom they feel comfortable. As Bernadette Healy, a primary school teacher with over ten years experience notes, “We often see students changing their friendship groups in grades two or three, as they gain the confidence to make their own choices rather than simply going with the flow.”
Girls and boys of this age also tend to approach friendships somewhat differently. Whilst boys often play in a large group, performing an activity such as football or chasey which has some form of external rules, girls are inclined to break off into pairs or threes and conduct imaginary games of their own devising. “Boys generally run as a pack for the first few years of school,” says Bernadette, “Which can make it easier for them to settle in and find their feet.” Jocelyn, the mother of two primary-school aged daughters agrees. “It seems to me that girls are more exclusive about their friendships from an earlier age than boys. They’re either eager to lead or eager to please- they have all sorts of rules and hierarchies, and there’s none of this casual coming in and out of a game as boys do.”
Regardless of gender however, as friendships develop cliques and bullying may also arise. Glenda Bushell, head of junior school at Camberwell Girls Grammar in Melbourne has found that both may begin in the lower primary years, and can occur as children begin to test their social power and find their place in the pecking order. “Bullying also appears when children model parents who use inappropriate tactics to get what they want,” adds Doreen Westley, a psychologist and family therapist practicing in Brisbane. “Often the children who are bullies have been bullied themselves in their home environment. They see how it works and try it for themselves.” To combat such behaviours, Glenda Bushell suggests that “Children need to be taught assertiveness and confidence building skills, such as how to say no or how to walk away from a bully, ideally before they even start school.”
Despite all the best preparations however, occasionally children do complain of being picked on or excluded at school, or simply fall in with classmates of which their parents disapprove. In such cases many parents are tempted to intervene. Teachers and psychologists warn however that this is rarely helpful. “Even in the junior grades, I think it would have to be a serious problem before I would suggest parents should get involved,” says Bernadette Healy. “Kids tend to sort themselves out and situations can change quickly too- often they’ll die down if you just leave them alone. Parents of young children also need to remember to take what their child tells them with a grain of salt. When a five year old complains ‘nobody played with me’ that may have been for just a few minutes, but the child only remembers those powerful emotions.” Glenda Bushell adds that if parents intervene children do not have a chance to learn or practice coping strategise for themselves, whilst Lyn Worsley cautions that a large and powerful adult stepping in to control smaller individuals actually models bullying behaviour. Instead, all advise that parents talk regularly with their children about their friendships, offer suggestions for handling certain situations or behaviours if necessary, and discuss any concerns with their child’s teacher.
“The only time I would ever advocate direct intervention from the parents is in the case of physical violence- which is rare in primary school- or if the child truly has no friends,” says Zyron Krupenia. “Whilst it’s quite normal for some children, particularly girls, just to have one or two friends, it’s not good for any child to be completely alone. This usually only occurs in extreme situations, such as when the child is excessively shy or aggressive, or has a physical impediment which limits his or her ability to participate in games or conversation. In these cases you may need to get professionals involved: certainly the child’s teacher, but sometimes also a paediatrician or psychologist.”
Most other situations however can be dealt with by taking a lower key approach. As Jocelyn recalls, “When my oldest daughter Elizabeth started school she became enamoured of a very dominant little girl, who insisted that Elizabeth bring her toys, lollies and even money, or she wouldn’t be her friend. We were worried, because it was making Elizabeth anxious and miserable, but I also knew that she had to learn to stand on her own two feet. I really wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked the teacher’s advice. The teacher then kept an eye on the behaviour and nipped it in the bud as it appeared, but more importantly Elizabeth saw me asking for help, and it made her less afraid to do the same. We also reinforced at home that real friends like you for yourself, and that you don’t have to be friends with everybody. All together it helped Elizabeth enormously. The other child hasn’t changed, but Elizabeth is much more confident in dealing with her now.”
*Names of all parents and children have been changed.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)