Children's Friendships

My niece Sofie calls me up from Wisconsin when she needs to talk. We follow a tradition known in Holland as "the Dutch uncle". A Dutch uncle is someone a child can talk to confidentially, without the child's parents finding out what they talked about. This tradition acknowledges that parents can sometimes be a little too invested in their children's world to be the best listeners. A Dutch uncle offers kids an alternative person with whom to try to sort out their troubles. I'm always flattered when she calls, and glad to be of service to a ten year old in need. The problem this time is with friends. It seems that Sofie has hit the age where politics begin to play heavily in friendship. No longer are friends just the people she likes to play with. Such innocence has passed. Now friends define her status, what clique she belongs to, and whether anyone will sit with her at lunch time. This week, her best friend, Carla, dumped her. "I never was your friend!" were Carla's cruel parting words. It wasn't hard to empathize. We've all been there at least once, haven't we? Sofie and I talked about how the rejection probably said more about what Carla is struggling with than it says about Sofie's worth as a friend. That helped, but it couldn't remove all the hurt.

When I finished talking to Sofie I started to sort the mail. I found a letter there from Zeke, an old high school friend who was organizing our twenty-fifth class reunion. I cringed at the sight of his name, for Zeke had been my best friend, until I dumped him. We were in tenth grade. Zeke and I had hung out all year. Neither of us had fit into any cliques, but at least we had each other. That spring, however, the guys on the soccer team started deciding that maybe I was cool enough to join them. Their group went to the donut store every day after school. Zeke and I had watched many times as they all laughed and piled into some senior's car, then sped out of the parking lot. I imagined that if I could be part of that group I would finally be considered "cool". Who knows, maybe then I could even get a girlfriend!

One magic day they invited me along. I called to Zeke to join us, but he knew he wasn't wanted by the others. And when they didn't like someone, they always let you know. I stood on the curb waiting to get in the car. Zeke stood at the school's front door. His eyes reached out to me, pleading"I thought you were my friend."

I looked back, trying to convey my feeling that this was all happening too fast. But all I could get my eyes to say was, "I'm sorry."

Then Zeke's expression hardened and he turned his head as if to say, "Screw you".

I got in the car. I never talked to Zeke or anyone else about it.

Now, twenty-seven years later, I still feel like a schmuck.

If I had a chance to do it over, I now know what I would say to Zeke, and what I would say to my new friends. I would be able to describe how hard it was for me to be standing in the middle, having to decide. But at the time I had no words for these feelings.

So I love getting the chance to help kids think about their friendships. They need adults to help them articulate their feelings about the interpersonal dynamics they encounter. We may help them every evening with their homework, but too often we leave them to manage their friendships alone.

Sometimes it helps to watch your child as they play with their friends. That way you can notice teach child's different personality. Later, you can ask your child to talk about what she likes and doesn't like about the important peers in her life. This type of conversation can help a child articulate their needs and feelings. Then they can communicate better with their friends.

Without such help they may do things they will still regret twenty-seven years later.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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