“I don’t believe I have ever met a parent who did not on some level yearn for the ability to hand pick his for her children’s friends. Parents often find themselves comforting their children, drying tears of frustrations or anger caused by the slings and arrows of outrageous friendships, and wondering whether there will ever be an end to then pain that ill-conceived peer relationships seem to cause. This is not a trivial issue. Friendship choices are also ethical choices, for the people with whom we associate, the people with whom we are comfortable, the various ways in which we relate to our friends all have a profound impact on the kinds of ethical decisions we make every day.
Think back to your own childhood. Remember the impact your friends had on the choices you made? There were probably times when your friends’ approval meant more to you than the approval of your parents, or of anyone else. Peer acceptance was the measure by which you gauged much of your behavior, successes and failures. If a certain action, activity, manner of dress, or figure of speech was “cool” as far as your friends were concerned, it was okay by you as well.
Of course this social reality of childhood can give parents nightmares. They lament their inability to overcome the powerful pressure that peers exert on so many aspects of their children’s lives. When all is said and done, however, this is a reality that every parent must accept, and then learn to accommodate in their approach to child raising.
This doesn’t mean that you are powerless to influence your children’s friendships – you’re not. While you can’t choose their friends, you can do something even more vital – you can choose your own! You can make your friendships models for your children, You can have the kind of friends that you would like your children to have, and more importantly, you can be the kind of friend that you would like your children to be.
After modeling, the next best thing you can do to influence your children’s choice of friends may be to guide them toward the understanding of how important that choice is in the first place.
Use your own friendships as a testing laboratory for your children’s. Talk to your children about your friends: the reasons you value them as part of your life, the qualities you admire in them the principle of give-and-take in relationships as it applies to you and your friends, and the social, emotional and spiritual benefits that come through having these particular friendships in your life. In this way, you teach your children something they otherwise might not realize – that they should not take friendships lightly; that they ought to put at least as much thought into choosing friends as they do into choosing the clothes they wear when they spend time with these friends.
Do not neglect to teach your children that sticking by our friends in the face of others’ disapproval is also a worthwhile value. We want our children to be loyal to people they care about, even as they make their year-by-year decisions about the moral character of those they choose to call their friends. Be sure to explain that a great many people in our world ill judge us by the company we keep. They will come to conclusions regarding our integrity and personal qualities on the basis of whom we pick to be our friends, whom we pick to have around us in our lives.
No one would argue that such obviously subjective character judgments are “fair.” They aren’t. It may not be “fair”, and it may not even be “right,” but it is a reality that they cannot ignore or make disappear. Like it or not, that’s they way real people make decisions about others in our world. Teach your children that there isn’t much we can do about the judgment of others, but we can have a say about the extent to which we allow those others to influence our own lives.
This is an extremely sophisticated concept, and I urge parents to present it to their children in just that light. “I’d like to talk to you about how your friends affect the kind of person you become and how others see you. This is a very mature, adult idea, but I think that you can understand and appreciate it. It’s important for you to understand how your choice of friends can affect your life. As an adult, I have exactly the same experiences you do when it comes to choosing friends. I try to be aware all the time of how my friendships affect how I act and the kind of person I am, so that I always feel that who I am and how I am perceived by others is my choice – the result of my own conscious choosing.”
Most children will not have the capacity to grasp this idea and its implications before adolescence. However, you can begin to express it to your children from the time they begin to question their choice of friends and comment negatively on their friends’ behavior. If you have chosen your friends wisely, then it will be easier for you to illustrate this talk with your own personal examples.
This is not to say that all friendships should be based on self-conscious, carefully planned criteria. We know they are not. Some people become our friends because we share common interest and experiences. Other friendships we just seem to fall into. It is still appropriate, however, as you approach this issue with your children, to examine all your friendships and see if they form an overall pattern of ethical role modeling that you would be pleased to see your children re-create in their own lives.
Friendships can be one of the richest sources of support, love, stability and values for your children as they grow and mature in life. Do your best to model the kind of friendships your want them to emulate, and be the kind of adult you want them to grow up to be, and your children will learn the important role that friendship can play in their lives.