From the December 2019 issue

9 Rules for Teaching Kids How to Be a Good Friend

We all want good friends. But what's it take to BE one? It's not a lesson parents always directly teach. These tips can help kids learn how to be a good friend.

Illustration by Jon Wilcox

When you’re young, the beginning of a friendship can be so simple. For Karen Broski’s daughter, it started with a backpack.

“My daughter waved and got on the bus with no problem,” Broski, who lives in Romeo, recalls of her daughter’s first day of kindergarten in September. “When she came home, she started telling me all about the friends she made. When I asked her why she considered them her friends, she explained – in her 5-year-old voice – that they were nice to her and one had the same backpack as her, so why not be friends?”

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

It’s no secret that friendships are a vital part of the human existence. The basic fulfillments of friendship – companionship, loyalty, trustworthiness, acceptance – don’t change over time. We crave these relations from our earliest recollections and throughout all seasons of life. The relationships we forge with dear friends are the source of some of our fondest memories.

Friendships are often the first relationships youngsters have outside of their core family unit. And while relationships can get complicated with time and age, the foundation of what it means to be a “friend” often stems back to the teachings and examples set by mom and dad.

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That responsibility may seem heavy to parents. We want our kids to be kind, and we want others to reciprocate this kindness. We want them to form enriching friendships, yet we worry they can – and will – be hurt.

In addition to being a mother of two, Broski is also a school counselor, where she works with high school students, and a clinical mental health counselor. She says she helps someone navigate friendships – both as a mom and in her professional role – “every day.”

“(Children) are always watching,” Broski says. “The more we can teach them by showing, the more they will learn to befriend another child instead of bully them.”

So what’s a parent to do? How can parents raise their children to be a good friend who, in turn, will reap the rewards of worthwhile friendships? These nine rules of friendship are a perfect place to start.

1. Be open, kind and understanding.

Keep an open mind. It’s OK to be different, and it’s OK to have a friend who is different. A person shouldn’t be limited to only have a certain amount, or type, of friends.

“It’s OK for another kid to be different,” Broski says. “It’s OK for them to have different clothes or come from a different way of living. We are all the same. Be kind. Even if someone is mean, be kind. Always be open to being someone’s friend.”

Broski says feelings of friendship can be associated with many people.

“I am not saying that someone needs to tell their child to be friends with every single (person) who crosses their path in life. But a child should always be ‘open’ to new friendships, because you can never have too many,” she says.

2. Be inclusive.

When fifth grade teacher Karla Hardies dropped her own children off at school each day, the last words she said, as they got out of the car, were, “Don’t let anyone sit alone!”

“We talked a lot about what that means,” Hardies says of her now-grown children – Rachel, 22, Caroline, 19, and Caleb, 17. “I feel that my kids were very comfortable with talking with anyone and everyone. It meant that they didn’t need a ‘crew’ to go to a school event, because there were people there that they knew already.”

Hardies says her college-age daughters often tell her they still ask to sit with people who are alone, just to have conversation. It’s a life lesson she works to instill in her own students at St. Peter Lutheran School in Macomb Township.

“Navigating friendships in fifth grade is helping my class see when someone is in need of a friend,” she says. “Often, not out of spite, but because they are kids, my students can overlook a classmate in need of just someone to sit with, talk with, partner with, play with.

“We do lots of talking at the beginning of the year about what being inclusive looks like, and we roleplay it until everyone is comfortable with asking a classmate to play on the playground or to sit with them at lunch.”

Hardies says children are naturally inclusive.

“When I taught little kids, we had a ‘buddy bench’ where you could sit if you were looking for a buddy on the playground,” she says. “Just that tool alone let us really talk about what it means to be friendly with someone.”

3. Look to your parents as examples.

“Family is our first role model,” says Candace Duane, school social worker at Fordline and Shelters elementary schools in Southgate. “They are who kids look to when developing basic social skills. So parents can help by modeling those character traits and behaviors that they hope to build in their children.”

Duane encourages parents to model open communication, patience, listening skills and peaceful problem-solving. It’s also important that children witness parents express feelings while valuing the points of views of others – as well as taking responsibility for their own actions.

“Kids see that even adults aren’t perfect and that friendships take work and care to maintain,” she says. “(Parents) can help their children understand and celebrate diversity. We don’t have to be exactly alike to be friends and, in fact, differences can often make our friendships stronger.”

Through their parents’ example, children can learn problem-solving skills and understand that no one gets along perfectly every day. This can lead to lessons in communication and forgiveness.

4. ‘Be there’ for your friends.

True friends depend on each other. They have each other’s backs. They are a source of comfort to one another.

“When we talk with our students about qualities that make a good friend, loyalty is always one of the main qualities that kids identify as important,” Duane says. “Kids are able to express what they look for in others and what they need to maintain a friendship. And loyalty is vital in friendship.”

Life has a way of throwing curveballs, and it’s nice to know that, through thick and thin, your friend remains there for you.

“You want to be there for a friend when they are down, but also when they have something positive going on,” Broski says. “Everyone enjoys being praised for a job well done or for something they have accomplished. Reminding them that you want to be there, in the good and bad times, to support them (and) showing them you care means so much.”

5. Stand up for your friends.

One of the bravest – and kindest – things a kid can do is to stand up for a friend. And although it’s an important part of friendship, sometimes it can be a bit scary to do if a bully is involved.

Broski recommends that, in these moments, a friend simply walks up to the child being picked on and ask if he or she is OK. Then – if they feel comfortable – saying to the other child, “It’s OK, and I understand that you may be having a bad day, but that does not make it right to make another person’s day bad.”

“More than anything, the one who is picking on the other oftentimes does not know how to react when approached with kindness and, in the moment of doubt, will just walk away,” Broski says.

6. Establish healthy boundaries.

Lynsey Bernard, Birmingham mom to Aurelia, 10, Samantha, 10, Alexandra, 12, and Maya, 14, wants her daughters to know that if they feel uncomfortable, it’s OK to remove themselves from the situation.

“Our kids know that if anyone is asking them to do something that makes them uncomfortable or is wrong, or if a friend asks them to keep secrets from their parents or teachers, they need to take a break from that individual,” Bernard says.

Kids also may find themselves in a friendship that’s gone toxic, or perhaps they have a “frenemy” who’s being bossy or even bordering on bullying. Help children recognize that a good friend is respectful, honest and inclusive, and values a friendship over popularity and power.

“Encourage her to put some space between her and the friend,” notes VerywellFamily.com, an expert-led online parenting resource. Here again, roleplaying with kids can help them think of what to say to the friend. Be patient and understanding, too, since the separation can be tough for kids.

“In the meantime, help your child make connections with others,” it adds. “Invite other friends over and encourage your child to try new activities or explore new interests.”

7. Don’t ‘overshare’ on social media.

Social media has created an entirely new complexity in adolescent friendships – as if it wasn’t already hard enough. Hardies strongly recommends not posting everything to social media.

“In high school, we had some honest conversation about how ‘friend moments’ do not need to be documented on social media,” she says. “Someone is bound to feel left out – whether you meant to make them feel that way or not. Why come across as someone who is trying to stir it up?”

Broski believes children don’t understand the severity behind what’s posted online.

“Often, children are mad at someone and post something and then delete it right away thinking it is gone. (However), it is never gone once it’s online,” Broski says. “By the time you try to delete it, someone has seen that post and either shared it or took a picture.

“If you are going to have social media accounts, have it be for the positive,” Broski recommends. “Embrace your life through social media and help support others to embrace their lives. It should not be another place where we tear people down. We need to refocus and understand the positive effects social media can have when used appropriately.”

8. Understand friendships aren’t always perfect.

There will be tough conversations. Conflicts, when worked through respectfully and considerately, can lead to deeper, enhanced friendships.

“Helping kids to understand that conflict is a normal part of relationships is important,” Duane says. “Kids need to know that mistakes happen and they are a chance to learn and grow – not just academically, but socially too.”

Hardies recommends parents help their children navigate potentially difficult conversations.

“(They should have) honest, kind conversations with the friends. ‘You hurt my feelings’ is a great place to start,” she says. “Things unsaid are so often misinterpreted. Practice this conversation with your kiddo before sending him or her to school for sure.”

9. There are ‘friends for a reason and friends for a season.’

Relationships change. People, of all ages, change. It’s a lesson Bernard had to help her daughters learn.

“Kids – and people – change so much over time,” she says. “We just try to reinforce that if you see something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or are spending time with a ‘friend’ but feel sad or angry, then it’s probably a good time to begin looking for others to spend time with.”

Hardies agrees that it is natural for friendships to shift over time.

“Friendships are fluid,” she says. “They exist for a reason or a season, and it’s OK that they change. Just because a friendship shifts, it isn’t right or fair to blame one person or the other. Of course it can hurt, but there are so many options for more friends.”

Broski adds, “Many times, that friendship, during that period of your life, was there for a reason. Even if you are not friends any longer, there was a reason for that friendship at that point in time.”

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