Every morning when we say goodbye to our children at the school gate, we send them off on a perilous journey. For most kids, concerns about homework, tests and lost PE kits pale into significance compared with their real worries: is the row that spilt out on Snapchat last night going to keep going? Who will they sit with at lunch?
Outdoor play is vital for developing relationship skills.
While researching my new book, The Friendship Maze, I found plenty of research showing that children are now behaving more cruelly at a younger age than ever before. Knowing how much trouble they will get into if they are caught bullying others, this meanness ends up getting channelled underground into "relational aggression", which ranges from ignoring and dirty looks, to put-downs and rumour-mongering.
The way to steer them away from this is to help them to create meaningful friendships in which they feel happy and confident enough not to slip into unkind behaviour. Here's how to do it:
Social media. A study by Israel's Hofstra University has found the more time 14-year-olds spent online, the more likely they were to get caught up in cyber-bullying. Set limits and stick to them: delay giving children access to social media for as long as possible, and certainly not before the minimum age, which is 13. When they do sign up, research suggests the sweet spot is using it for no longer than an hour a day, after which point they are more likely to get dragged into rows.
Mobile phones and laptops. We now live in a culture where more families than ever have two parents in employment – and phones are often responsible for blurring the lines between home and work. It is no surprise then that researchers found that in families where parents are more distracted by phones, they talk to their children as much as a fifth less. And our own rising stress levels make us more likely to palm our children off with gadgets. When our phones run so much of our lives, it's easy to overuse them in front of the children. It's critical your child never feels your phone is more important than they are, so turn off your notifications and use auto-reply more, so you don't feel the need to interrupt your time with them. Flip the lid down on your laptop when they enter the room to show you want to chat. Draw up a list of screen-use rules for your home that everyone must abide by. These may include no phones for anyone within an hour of coming home – so you can reconnect and talk about the day – as well as a ban at meals, during family outings or before bedtime, another important time to connect. Schedule phone-free one-on-one time with your child and frame it as a reward for everyone, not a punishment.
Outdoor play. Play is how children learn friendship skills: where they learn how to compromise, think creatively, recognise important facial and verbal cues, and ultimately learn what behaviour is acceptable. Get them outside with others for unstructured play, and see it as making a conscious decision to let them find out more about themselves and their peers.
Pushy parenting. Too often the first question we ask our children when they come out of school is not "What did you play at break?" but "What did everyone else get in the spelling test?" It's no surprise that kids soon learn to measure their achievements not on their own merits, but by comparison to others, causing their social relationships to suffer because they feel good when others fail. Children need opportunities to just spend time with friends, playing and just "being" together. As they get older, avoid constantly asking how their performance stacks up to that of their peers, talking too early about what university they "should" go to, or imposing your own expectations on them. They are far more likely to make informed, confident choices if they have been able to come to decisions without undue pressure from others.
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