Laurie Schneider of Calgary says she noted a change in her eldest daughter Sophie’s friends in Grade 3. “Up until then, everyone pretty much got along. But when they hit about nine years old, some of the kids became cliquey and in some cases mean. I think it’s a time when kids are learning how to wield their power over others.”
For her part, Sophie, now 11, didn’t like what was going on. “It was hard for her to understand why different friends were suddenly deciding they wouldn’t play with specific other friends,” says Schneider. It was also difficult for Schneider to see her daughter upset and excluded. Still, she decided to play a supportive role as Sophie navigated the sometimes rocky world of school-aged relationships.
“We talked about how these kids were acting and how it made her feel. We also talked about what’s important to her and how as a family we think it’s important to stick to who you are as a person. If someone is asking you to change or do things you are not comfortable with or you think are wrong, maybe those aren’t the people you want to hang out with,” says Schneider. “It took time, but we kept the conversation going and reinforced the importance of being with people who make you feel good, not bad, and accept you for who you are. It’s not up to me at this stage to decide whom they can play with. They are making their own friends. But I can be there to give them strategies that lead to good choices.”
And that is exactly as it should be, says Ester Cole, a psychologist in private practice in Toronto and chair of the Psychology Foundation of Canada’s Parenting for Life program. “Friendships are paramount for sense of self. As a parent, you cannot direct or dictate them. Choosing friends and distinguishing what makes a good friend and what doesn’t is a life lesson that will serve children well as they move on to high school and beyond.”
As with any kind of life lessons, they will make mistakes, says Calgary’s Julie Freedman Smith, a parent educator with Parenting Power. And that’s okay. “It’s by going through that process that they learn how to be good friends and how to choose good friends.” Here are some strategies to help you guide and support your child through the process.
Finally, even if you’re not keen on a particular friendship, remember, at this stage they come with an expiration date. And so do worrisome behaviours. Now in Grade 6, some of those mean girls Sophie had to contend with are coming out of the phase and she is now friends with them, says Schneider. “They have figured some stuff out and gotten over that bump.”
Mary Teresa Bitti is a freelance writer and mom of two doing her best to give her children the space to make their own decisions, while always providing a safe place to land.