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Help your kids understand friendship

Learn to boost your child’s social competence with this parent-friendly guide. Read an excerpt.

It's important to kids that they have friends, but behavior such as bullying has made life hell for millions of children. Based on a survey of 5,000 teachers and parents, “Nobody Likes Me” explains the friendship-building skills kids need to find, make, and keep friends, as well as survive the social pressure from peers. Educator and author Michelle Borba was invited on the “Today” show to discuss her new book “Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them.” Here’s an excerpt.

Why Do Friends Matter So Much to Your Kid?
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.
—William Shakespeare; Hamlet

Dear Dr. Borba,I’m concerned about my nine-year-old son lately: he just doesn’t seem happy for some reason. He’s a very smart, good-looking kid,and has just about everything money can buy. My wife and I want so much for him to be successful in life, so we’ve really put a strong emphasis on education and continually stressed the importance of his grades.We provide him with all kinds of tutors: tennis, a personal coach, and music — knowing how important it is to have a great résumé for college. But now I wonder if I’ve made a mistake. He has little time for friends, and when he is with a group of his peers he somehow doesn’t seem to be at ease like the other kids. Am I wrong in putting all the emphasis on my son’s grades? Just how important are friends? —Jake B., a concerned dad from Seattle, Washington

I have the good fortune to work with parents and educators all over the world — conducting workshops, trainings, keynote addresses, facilitations, conferences, listening sessions. I have a very busy Web site where thousands of parents write me with their questions and concerns every day. I am also on the advisory board of Parents magazine, so editors and writers call me about the articles they’re writing on topics of greatest concern to their readers.

The one thing I hear about every day from moms and dads, teachers and writers everywhere is kids’ problems with friends. It seems like friendship and peer relationships are the single most crucial and widespread kid issue on everyone’s mind today. I hear about bullying, aggression and violence, rejection, cliques, gossiping, unhealthy competition, backstabbing, ostracizing, one-upping. In the past these problems were more common among middle schoolers and teens, but now I’m seeing this with younger and younger kids.

Everyone needs friends — but especially kids. How many friends our kids have isn’t the issue.What’s important is making sure they have at least one or two good, “true blue” buddies.

What’s going on here? Just how bad is it? How are kids really getting along? Well, consider this:

• A nationwide survey found that 43 percent of students said they were afraid to go to the school bathroom for fear of being harassed by a classmate.

• By some estimates, one in seven American schoolchildren is either a bully or victim. In some cases, the same child is a bully one day and a victim the next.

• The National Education Association reports that every day, 160,000 children skip school because they fear being attacked or intimidated by other students.

• A national survey reveals that more than two-thirds of school police officers say younger children are acting more aggressively.

• A 1998 national survey conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that almost one in every four middle-school and high-school males said he had hit a peer in the past twelve months “because he was angry.”

• According to the Education Foundation of the American Association of University Women, four out of five adolescents in 1,600 public schools across the country said sexual harassment (bullying with sexual overtones) is widespread.

• Researchers from Northeastern University surveyed thirty Massachusetts high schools and found that one-third of students reported that they had been victims of one or more hate-based crimes.

• A survey of 991 kids ages nine to fourteen revealed troubling facts about peer pressure: 36 percent of the middle schoolers surveyed feel pressure from peers to smoke marijuana, 40 percent feel pressure to have sex, 36 percent feel pressure to shoplift, and four out of ten sixth graders feel pressure to drink.

• A recent New York Times article cited the new kid trend of “cyberspace bullying” as spiraling into an “unprecedented degree of brutality” in spreading vicious gossip and insults about peers.

And it isn’t getting any better.

Of course the prime reason a kid says friends are important is for fun and companionship. But, in fact, there are a number of reasons why friendship matters. The latest research tells us that friendships are far more significant in our kids’ lives than we ever thought before. Friends not only influence our children in the here and now but also lay the groundwork for adult relationships, health and well-being, the careers they choose, their self-esteem, whom they choose as their life partner, and how they parent their own kids.

I’m not forgetting that of course your child is unlike any other. Your child is special, with her own unique and lovable temperament and personality. And the last thing we want to presume is that there’s any possibility or even value in trying to change who our kids are way deep down.

Can you imagine an Archbishop Desmond Tutu morphing into a Donald Trump? Or a Laura Bush–type morphing into a Madonna? Kids are all different, and God bless them.

Nevertheless, no matter how different his or her personality and temperament may be, each and every one of our kids really needs friends: shy friends, assertive friends, sensitive friends, friends who are leaders or followers, those who are kindhearted and lovable, those who are funny or daring. Different strokes for different folks. Everyone wants, needs, and must have friends. And although we never want to even try changing our children’s basic identity, we can definitely help them learn what they must to do so that they’ll always have those precious friends they need so much.

Let’s face it: friends have a great deal to do with our kids’ happiness and well-being. It’s through friendships that our kids will learn how to navigate the rough waters of their social development. So let’s take a closer look at the true value of friends and friendships in our kids’ lives.

Why does my daughter need so many friends? I’m her best friend. There’s no one who can love her as much as I do and be a more positive influence.
—Erin W., a mom from Topeka, Kansas

My son has no time for friends.With all the competition to get into the top schools these days, he needs to focus on grades and getting all the extra tutoring he needs to stay ahead of the pack. He can have time for friends when he gets out of school.
—Rob L., a dad from Newport Beach, California

I don’t want my kids to have friends. Kids today have no values. All they care about is bad music, cheap-looking clothes, and trying to be cool. I don’t want that kind of influence on my child.—Susan P., a mom from New York City

I’m not allowing my daughter to stay overnight at some stranger’s house. And I can’t believe any other parent with half a brain would either. How do we know what’s going on over there?
—Seth B., a dad from Chattanooga,Tennessee

Sound familiar? Can you really blame parents for feeling this way? Have you ever felt that way yourself ? This is definitely a tough time to be raising kids.

The fact is, though, that kids must have friends around their own age. Parents are parents and friends are friends. Parents can never provide the kind of social, moral, emotional, and cognitive experiences that friends can. Only friends can lead the way to selflessness, trust, loyalty, intimacy, and love. Only friends can help kids survive and prosper in the world, both personally and professionally. As a moral, ethical, and spiritual force in our lives, friendship is the key. And without friendships our kids are at higher risk for mental health problems, juvenile delinquency, depression, anxiety, failed marriages, and poor job performance.

Just so we get this straight, let’s consider what our kids get out of friendships.

15 Essential Skills That Friends Help Friends Acquire
Call them life skills or good old “people skills” — there’s no doubt that some of the most important lessons our kids will learn don’t happen in a classroom but with a kid or two in the sandbox, carpool, jungle gym, summer camp, or soccer field, or just sitting together on the bedroom floor.These lessons don’t need workbooks, a new laptop, or a personal coach, and success in achieving them is not indicated on test scores. Here are just a few of the critical skills that kids learn from their friends:

1. Solving problems and resolving conflicts2. Making decisions and distinguishing between right and wrong3. Handling teasing and verbal barbs, developing comebacks4. Learning to assert themselves and stand up for what they believe5. Understanding different points of view and nurturing empathy6. Developing identity by seeing themselves in relation to others7. Learning to cooperate, take turns, get along in a group, and share8. Regulating emotions and developing self-control9. Learning humility, being modest, and recognizing their shortcomings10. Developing trust and loyalty11. Acquiring confidence and courage in stressful groups and situations12. Communicating feelings, opinions, and needs13. Taking responsibility, owning up to mistakes, and making apologies14. Bouncing back and acquiring resilience15. Having fun, laughing, and keeping things in perspective

WHY ARE KIDS HAVING FRIENDSHIP PROBLEMS TODAY?Okay, so we agree that friends and friendships are important — even crucial to our kids’ happiness and development. So what? My mom and dad didn’t worry so much about this. What’s the big fuss? Why can’t kids just work things out for themselves? Why is there a big story on the friendship crisis every time we pick up a magazine or newspaper? Why are all the teachers and counselors so worried and even attending new seminars on bullyproofing and social-skill development?

Here’s why: things aren’t what they used to be. Times have changed. The world our kids live in is radically different from the one we knew when we were growing up. We’re living in the age of Columbine and 9/11. As parents today we are facing an atmosphere of fear and anxiety about our children’s safety. Every day we’re barraged by reports of violence, abduction, abuse — it’s terrifying. Not only that, it seems like there’s less and less money and fewer resources available to meet our kids’ social needs.

As a result, kids today are overcontrolled and overscheduled. Even sandbox and recess may be eliminated for budgetary and disciplinary reasons. There’s “no time for play.” Doors are locked. The neighborhood is gone. So are the parks. Families are more mobile. Society has become lonelier, and face-to-face interactions are replaced by text, e-mail, and fax.

At the same time, because of the demographic explosion of baby boomer children, there are more kids competing for fewer spots in the “best” schools and eventually the job market. So ambitious parents are scared that their kids won’t be properly educated, and that friendship problems or having the “wrong friends” will ruin their kids’ chances of success. But let’s take a closer look at how things have changed since we were growing up and why kids today are having such a problem with this crucial aspect of their lives.

Ten Reasons Why Our Kids Are Having a Friendship Crisis
There’s not just one new development that has changed things overnight but instead a gradual erosion of friendship-building conditions and skills. Here are just a few signs of this decline:

“Who’s got time?” Our kids are hurried and harried, and so are we. Every minute of our day seems to be jammed up, tightly crammed, and overscheduled. Who’s got even a minute for friends?

“It’s everyone for himself.” It’s all about win-win-win at any cost. Cooperating and looking out for the underdog is out. Our kids today are putting too much value on being selfish, unscrupulous, and greedy. There’s no room for caring about the other guy.

“Recess will be cancelled today.” There’s so much anxiety about academic achievement and improving schools’ ranking to qualify for state and federal funding that anything so frivolous as recess, sandbox, or other unstructured times when our kids could learn valuable friendship skills is out the window.

“All I need is batteries.” Kids today are more isolated, spending hours alone with their video games, DVD players, computers, and TV. Who needs anyone else in their lives? Why make the effort and have potential problems with friends when you have your own remote control?

“Double-bolt that door.” Parents must be prudent and cautious about where their children go and whom they go with. But we shouldn’t teach our kids to fear people automatically and to always be so leery of strangers. Keep in mind that the media tend to focus on sensational stories that give us a false impression that the number of crimes by strangers against children has risen dramatically, when in fact it hasn’t. The FBI says that the number of serious child kidnappings actually has not risen — it’s just that we’re more aware of them because of media coverage. The number one perpetrators of kid abduction aren’t strangers but family members. So don’t get swept away by the culture of fear.

“How long is your buddy list?” Communicating via text mail or e-mail may be fine and dandy, but there’s no substitute for the value of face-to-face interaction. Many kids today lead such micromanaged, overscheduled lives that those cherished times for real human interaction are few and far between.

“Didn’t you hear that whistle?” Play today is superorganized, adult led, and hypercompetitive. Kids’ football, soccer, ice hockey, baseball, and basketball are all modeled after professional adult sports. With so much adult supervision, there’s no opportunity for kids to form their own teams, make their own rules, learn to settle conflicts and disputes, and just play for fun without worrying about pleasing their parents, winning that trophy, or getting that scholarship.

“Pack your bags.” Did you know that the U.S. population is one of the most geographically mobile in the world? Over a five-year period, 46 percent of Americans move at least once.This makes it really tough for kids suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar neighborhood with new schools, new kids, new cultural norms. After moving a few times, your child may stop trying to make new friends because she knows it can’t last.

“People suck.” Sitcoms celebrate the nasty put-down. Reality TV pushes humiliation. Role models inspire us to be mean and selfish. The cold, cruel world we so often see in the media desensitizes our kids, destroys their faith in the value of friendship, and discourages them from pursuing the warmth of companionship and selfless devotion.

“Who needs manners?” Without the opportunities and conditions for friendship, our kids are simply not learning the essential social skills we all grew up with. Like “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me.” Like “What do you think?” “Now it’s your turn,” and “I love your new haircut.” We’re living in an age of incivility, and this breakdown of courtesy, respect, and good manners is leaving our kids poorly prepared to develop the intimate and empathic relationships that are so crucial for their happiness and fulfillment. In fact, nine out of ten Americans feel that the breakdown of common courtesy and civility has become a serious problem in this country.

The first step to increasing your child’s friendship quotient is to assess what his interpersonal strengths and weaknesses are right now. The better you understand how your child gets along with others and can identify the social skills he lacks, the better you’ll be to help him become socially competent. So the next time your child is around other kids,watch a little closer. Here are a few hints:

What Makes a Good Friend?
Here is a brief “quiz” to help your child assess his current relationships. Although no friendship is perfect, if your child can’t say yes to most of these comments, it may be time to “move on.”

  • My friend sticks up for me if other kids talk about me.
  • My friend and I have fun being together.
  • When something good (or bad) happens, I want to share it with my friend.
  • My friend and I may disagree, but we talk things through.
  • My friend and I look out for one another.
  • My friend and I can share secrets with one another.
  • My friend and I know all about one other and like each other just the same.
  • My friend makes me feel better if I’m sad.
  • We both want to be with each other.
  • My friend and I can trust one another.
  • My friend encourages me to do what’s right.
  • My friend makes me feel good about myself.

• Be honest. Take a good look at your kid’s friendship-making skills and how he relates to others.

• Observe your kid interacting with his peers without his being aware that you’re watching. Bring a newspaper or book to pretend to read while you really watch to see how your child interacts.

• Watch him also in different social settings — for instance, on the playground, in a backyard, at an athletic event, in school, with one child and with a group of kids, with younger kids and with older kids.• Also watch kids who your child would say are well-liked. Tune in to their friendship-making skills. What do they do that helps them be popular? And what are they doing that your child is not doing?

• Talk to other parents about what skills they think are important in helping kids make and keep friends. Also talk to others who know and care about your child. What is their take on the situation?

• Take notes and write down your findings.

Excerpted from “Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them,” by Michelle Borba. Copyright © 2005 by Michelle Borba. Excerpted by permission of Jossey-Bass, a division of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.