I’ve written recently about connecting with parents (1, 2, and 3), connecting with siblings (1 and 2) and today I’m going to share the first in a two part series about connecting with friends. Children need friends as much as they need food and exercise. Children who struggle to make friends are more likely to drop out of school and have drug problems as teens (Friends Forever). Not having friends has been shown to be as dangerous to your health as smoking (Social Relationships and Mortality Risk).

When I was young, I lived outside with a crowd of neighborhood kids from sun up to sun down. If I ever did anything socially unacceptable, I heard about it immediately. My elementary age boys only have one 20 minute recess every day and there are no children running around our neighborhood. If my boys want to get together with their friends, we have to schedule a time or sign them up for a structured activity, like baseball. There is usually more parental involvement in planned activities and less direct feedback from peers. As much as I hate to admit it, my children don’t have as many opportunities to learn and refine their social skills as I did. As I’ve been reading and studying about this, I’ve found there are a few valuable things parents can teach their children to help bridge this gap:

First, there are two very different kinds of popular people:

  1. CELEBRITIES – These are the people who are admired for something. They could be good looking, talented, athletic, rich, etc. Something about them makes them stand out so that everyone in their social sphere knows who they are. Changes in health, wealth and age can dramatically alter how their peers feel about them.
  2. MAGNETS – These are the people everyone wants to be with. They draw people to them with their genuine charm and likability. They may or may not belong to the “popular” crowd, but almost everyone enjoys spending time with them. They have impressive social skills, loyal friends and strong support networks. Changes in age, talent or wealth don’t affect how their peers feel about them.

Second, being a celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Many children think the best way to make friends is by impressing people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being admired, but it’s important to understand what happens when someone finds themselves at the top of a social hierarchy:

  1. Celebrities have to work hard to stay above the crowd. Their “top dog” status is never set in stone and people are constantly trying to unseat them. Life can become a perpetual competition and celebrities will sometimes take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take to maintain their status (Masterminds).
  2. People love to hate celebrities. Unless they have amazing social skills, it’s easy for celebrities to become targets of ridicule i.e…Kanye West or Justin Bieber. People are always looking for reasons to convince themselves celebrities aren’t as great as their reputations make them seem (Cliques).
  3. The qualities that make someone a celebrity are inherently intimidating, so it might be easy to find admirers; but it can be hard to find close friends (Smart Parenting).

I have one naturally athletic son who is used to competing with older boys. Last year during recess and gym class, the opposing teams would band together to defend him. The other children would form a thick circle around him to prevent him from ever getting his hands on the ball. Any time he did manage to score, they would challenge him and accuse him of breaking rules. As a result, he felt like everyone at school hated him.

Third, magnets follow the Good Friend Rules:

You can teach your children not to brag, but you can’t always control whether they are admired or not. Some children come prepackaged with talents or looks. Others are born into privileged homes with access to all the right clothes and technology. People who find themselves in admirable positions need to work harder than their peers to compensate for the distance their circumstances create. It is possible for someone to be both a celebrity and a magnet, but it takes effort. Here are eleven things magnetic people usually do (Smart Parenting, Friends Forever, Strategies for Making Friends):

  1. Magnets pretend they don’t care when they win.
  2. Magnets let their friends be right and look for the truth (not the error) in what they say, especially when their friends are guests in the magnet’s home.
  3. When magnets are involved in a conflict, they negotiate and get everyone involved to agree before moving on.*
  4. Magnets take organized games and activities seriously.
  5. Magnets praise or say nothing about other people, but they don’t criticize.
  6. Magnets give everyone a fair shot and they don’t interfere with anyone else’s efforts.
  7. Magnets are loyal.
  8. Magnets show interest in others and listen intently.
  9. If magnets are unsure how to behave, they try to be genuine, not funny.
  10. Magnets admit when they’re wrong quickly and they apologize willingly.
  11. Magnets look for reasons to be impressed by others instead of trying to be impressive themselves.

Fourth, even magnets run into problems sometimes.

*A magnet can successfully negotiate problems with friends by following these steps:

  1. State the problem in direct, but gentle words.
  2. Admit your own error and describe how you think it affected others.
  3. State the other person’s error and describe how it affected you in soft language.
  4. Suggest a compromise.
  5. Point out the negative outcomes if the compromise is refused and the positive outcomes if the compromise is accepted.
  6. Invite everyone to agree.
  7. Anyone who disagrees may repeat these steps until a suitable compromise is found.