A very fine book, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson, was published eleven years ago. I turned to this book this week as I received a few notes from parents about their children being excluded from birthday parties. The book addresses the issue of the parental experience of pain about one’s children’s social lives. The author notes: “Being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the time…. I believe that there is no area in which a parent feels more powerless to make a difference than in relation to a child’s social life.” (p. 7).
Amidst this helplessness, what is the appropriate role for the school and for the parent? School is as much about academic engagement as it is about social emotional development. In the course of a day, all of the administrators and teachers attend to the hurt feelings that are part of the nature of normal human development. We work to create an environment of kindness, and we know that this develops over time and through the negative and positive experiences that children face in the course of a school day. We know that kindness and caring grow along a somewhat predictable developmental continuum.
We watch all sorts of imaginative play, pairings and unpairings, as children become best friends and then worst enemies. During all of this, the job of the adults (the teachers, administrators) is to keep it safe and to let the children develop resilience. It is also our job to help the children develop the tools to decide outcomes for themselves and to articulate their own needs and to understand those of others.
Resilience is a much-used term in education today. It is that quality of being able to bounce back from negative situations which is critical to future success. The studies about resilience grew out of observations about children who grew up in adverse situations (poor homes with few resources and absent parents). The question that grew this concept is why do some of these kids succeed while others fail. The successful children were resilient. They were talented problem solvers and they had the ability to persevere especially under adverse situations.
When a child presents a story of hurt or exclusion, and if one of our goals is to nurture resilience, then we ought to do the following: acknowledge the child’s hurt feelings and help him/her think about why the other person acted this way. If you are the parent whose child wants to exclude others from a birthday party, then you have an obligation to help your child understand what that must feel like for that child. The school maintains a policy that an entire class or all the girls or all the boys should be invited to a party. If cost is a major consideration, then invite one or two close friends. When adults condone exclusion, we give permission to our children to be uncaring toward their classmates. More significantly, we deny our children important school values about developing resilience and practicing the idea of taking a moral high road.