“I think if I’ve learned anything about friendship, it’s to hang in, stay connected, fight for them, and let them fight for you. Don’t walk away, don’t be distracted, don’t be too busy or tired, don’t take them for granted. Friends are part of the glue that holds life and faith together. Powerful stuff.”
There are several variables that influence academic achievement. Some are the parents’ level of education (college educated parents tend to be better equipped to help children with academic concepts), the amount of reading materials in the home (the existence of books, magazines and newspapers is often a sign that learning is important), gender (girls tend to do better on reading and writing, while boys perform better on more analytical subjects), presence of positive role models (positive adult role models can help pave the path to achievement by setting standards and expectations) and valuing education (students who see and believe that education is a means to achieve something higher tend to do better in school).
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A close, positive friendship is another important influential factor. An article in the Wall Street Journal, “Wanted: A Best Friend,” brought to mind this fascinating concept — one that many educators (myself included) and parents alike often overlook: the relevance of close friendships and how they relate to a child’s success in school.
It isn’t easy making a best friend these days. A number of obstacles can get in the way as kid tries to cultivate strong friendship bonds — aka, a best friend.
Gone are the days of running around the neighborhood with your best buddies until dinnertime. Nearly gone are the tree house hangouts and the baring of souls at slumber parties. There is too much homework and too many electronic alternatives. There is the beckon of pervasive social networks and the changing dynamics of the modern family. And then there is the changing of suburbia itself.
Although the majority of kids tend to meet their best friend at school, school dynamics and cultures are changing. Toward middle and high school, cliques are typically broken up to prevent or combat bullying and classrooms are often shuffled for size and ability. Lunch time is shorter, as is the time between classes.
Many kids have their afternoons packed with programmed activities. According to Fred Frankel, author of “Friends Forever,” daily extracurriculars tend to drain friendships. Although some extracurricular activities allow kids to find companions with common interests, he says that daily after school programming cannot replace the benefits of spending one-on-one time with a best friend.
Social networking, online gaming and texting can help maintain close friendships when close friends are apart, but overall, typical online friendships create mostly superficial friendships.
Millie Ferrer and Anne Fugate in their University of Florida article “The Importance of Friendship for School-Age Children” say close friends are vital to school-age children’s healthy development. Research shows that children who lack friends can suffer emotionally later in life. Friendships are not just playmates — they help children learn social skills, such as how to communicate, cooperate and solve problems. They practice controlling their emotions and responding to the emotions of others. They develop the ability to think through and negotiate different situations that arise in their relationships.
Friends and academics
Having a good friend affects a child’s school performance, too. Children tend to have better attitudes about school and learning when they have their good friends there.
Teachers notice the subtle impact of friendships — good students tend to hang out with good students. Grades matter, projects and assignments are always done and achievement is a common thread. The carefree students hang out with other carefree students. Being cool and popular is most important. In this group, doing well in school can even be ridiculed.
So at the beginning of every school year, when I give my “welcome to real world: middle school” talk to my sixth graders, I make it a point to emphasize to them that the friends they chose this year may determine the academic path they take in the years to come. So choose wisely...”
What parents can do to help their child make friends
Children are not born with social skills. Parents need to help prepare them to interact successfully with peers. A parent’s love, acceptance and respect for their child help him/her develop the basic trust and self-confidence necessary to go out and develop bonds with others.
Parents are role models who, by their own behavior, can teach children how to meet people and talk to them, to cooperate with others and to ask for favors. Parents can teach how to win or lose well, to apologize and accept apologies and how to be patient, respectful, and considerate. Parents can help their child learn how to be the type of person others like to be around.
Ferrer and Fugate provide some things you can do to promote long lasting friendships for your child:
▪ Provide your child with opportunities to spend time with other children. Invite other children to your house to play or let your child participate in clubs, classes or teams. For older kids, make your home inviting so that your child wants to invite friends over, respect their privacy and provide them with guidelines that will allow them to talk/text with their friends.
▪ Help your child learn games and sports. Being able to play games and sports tends to be important for school-age children. It is easier to join in and have fun if they know the rules and have the basic skills to become a participant. Make sure not to let the sport become a drill or drudgery.
▪ Set clear rules for appropriate behavior. A child learns social skills in part through family rules about how to treat others. When you need to discipline your child, remember that he will imitate your actions. How you treat him when he breaks a rule will influence how he responds to others. Be firm, kind and respectful when you express your expectations of him.
▪ Teach your child how to handle different social situations. You probably began to teach your toddler how to share and how to say please and thank you. Continue coaching your child as she grows older and encounters more social situations.
▪ Talk with your child. Spend some time every day talking with your child. This time is not for giving instructions or lecturing, but just for talking about the day’s events or things that interest both of you. When your child is talking, make sure you are listening. Talking with your child will not only help you keep up with him, but it will also let him practice the very important social skill of holding a conversation.
▪ Help your child learn to see others’ points of view. Around the age of 6 or 7, children are more able to understand others’ feelings and points of view. Help your child develop this ability by talking about different situations. For example, when reading with your child, stop and ask how a character is feeling and why he does certain things. Or when your child tells you about situation at school, ask how she thinks the people felt and why they acted as they did.
▪ Help your child learn to manage negative feelings and solve problems. Being able to manage negative feelings and work out problems are important skills in getting along with others. First, help your child identify the situation. For example, say, “It sounds like you’re upset because Jamie didn’t include you in the game.” Then help him brainstorm solutions to the situation. Talk about the solutions he comes up with and have him pick one.
▪ Do not sweat the small stuff. Fitting in with friends is very important to school-age children (and becomes increasingly important as children near adolescence). Recognize how important it is to your child. She and her friends may do things that seem silly to you. For example, you may not like how children this age like to dress. However, if your child’s behavior is not dangerous or offensive, do not sweat the small stuff.
Friendships play a pivotal role in developing self- confidence and social skills and are known to impact academic success. Parents play a crucial role in a child’s social development but they cannot make friends for their child. Parental love, patience, and support can provide a foundation to help make this developmental task a success.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.