Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, has written many parenting books, including Talking to Tweens and Raising Happy Kids. Her latest, Making Friends: A Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child’s Friendships, explores the all-important topic of how children relate to each other. Hartley-Brewer interviewed and interacted with many children up to age 12 and their parents to find out what’s most important to young children in friendship and what they want and get from friends at each stage. The book includes quotes straight from the kids she chatted with, plus hundreds of helpful tips for dealing with your child’s friendships. In this exclusive interview, Hartley-Brewer spoke with Parent & Child about the stages of friendship in a child’s development, shy children, what to do about bullying, and more.
Parent & Child: What motivated you to write about friendship?
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer: I’ve been interested in the idea of adult friendship for a while — asking myself questions such as: What makes you like or get on with someone? Why do you have different types of friends? How come you can meet someone again who was a friend after many years and still feel close? Why are there so many different styles of friend yet only one word for this relationship? In relation to children, while I had written about the role of friends for 8- to 12-year-olds in Talking to Tweens, I realized that friendships are also important at younger ages and contribute differently to their development. Just because these friendships don’t usually last doesn’t mean they’re shallow—far from it! I decided it was time I spent more time with younger children to hear their thoughts on what triggers their choices of friend and what can worry them. It’s been a delightful journey.
P&C: How important is friendship in a child’s life, especially at different ages? What sort of purposes do friends serve for children?
Hartley-Brewer: Friends are very important to children’s all-around development, helping them to grow socially, emotionally, and even physically, into balanced teenagers and adults. They help to make us who we eventually become, but they’re also a training ground for the problem-solving and relationship skills we all need. For younger children, friends offer familiarity and therefore security, feedback on what behavior’s OK or not acceptable, a way to have fun and “let go,” and help in developing a separate identity. Older children gain confidence from approaching new challenges in the safety of numbers or with a supportive friend, pick up new and different interests, and widen their social and moral horizons by discovering that other families live differently and support different causes.
P&C: What advice would you give to a parent whose child is shy and has a hard time making friends?
• Start by taking your child with you when you socialize, so he gradually feels more comfortable in new environments and watches you being sociable.
• Encourage him to join a small local group that offers movement, drama, or singing activities, which may make him more confident about expressing and being himself.
• Invite friends with children to your home, but not too many, so as not to overpower yours.
• Before he starts a new school, help him to meet some of his classmates.
• Talk to the teacher. Most kindergartens have schemes to help shy children form friendships.
P&C: What are some ways you recommend parents deal with problems in friendships, such as manipulation or bullying?
Hartley-Brewer: In general, parents should think twice before jumping in to sort out their child’s friendship problems. Many of these are passing and each child must learn how to get through difficulties themselves, which will boost their confidence. However, where there’s serious manipulation or bullying, real damage can be done and parents have a role. A child will need help; just try not to dive in and take over. Offer some things to say and do, then leave her to use these. Suggest that your child repeat a simple phrase that makes her feel stronger and good about herself, such as, “I am a kind, lovely person. She’s the one with the problems!”
P&C: In the book you also discuss helping a child to gain self-esteem and confidence as a way toward being better able to make friends. You mention that there are several books that offer advice on how to do this. Are there any you would recommend?
Hartley-Brewer: Naturally, I’d like to recommend my own! Raising Happy Kids focuses on helping kids of any age gain positive self-esteem and self-confidence. It offers an action plan linked to 13 key words. Raising Confident Boys and Raising Confident Girls are two very easy books based on 100 tips, or catchy statements. Both have become best sellers worldwide.
P&C: This book in particular and your writing in general seem to reflect a great deal of respect for the perspective of the child in the parent-child relationship. Why do you think this is important?
Hartley-Brewer: I think it’s crucial, if you are to get the best from any child, to understand life from their personal perspective. Adults forget what it’s like to be small and to be dominated and directed by bossy, all-powerful adults most of the time. Children should not be asked to fit endlessly into what’s convenient for grown-ups. Children may not be fully grown, but they are people with interests and rights to be heard and respected. At any age, a child is as old as he’s ever been, and so carries a pride and belief in his competence that should be nurtured and treasured, not carelessly ignored or disparaged. When you show respect for how a child thinks and feels, you teach him to do the same, and he learns to trust you. This doesn’t mean at all that you give in constantly—for you’re the grown-up, can see the bigger picture, and must take responsibility for longer-term outcomes. In this caring but managed environment, love and friendship flourish.