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Social Lives of Children




Excerpted from
Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children
By Michael Thompson, Ph.D., Catherine O'Neill Grace, Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.

Some years ago, when my children were twelve and eight years old, our family returned from a two-week vacation-a good and fun trip. We had barely made it through the kitchen door before my son, Will, headed for the phone to call his friend Mitchell and my daughter, Joanna, disappeared into my wife's home office to grab the other phone line so that she could call her friend Miranda. I remember that Theresa and I looked at each other and one of us said, "Well, the family vacation is over." Our children were desperate to be in touch with their friends.

This is a book about the importance of children's social lives, the inevitable tendency of kids to torment and reject their peers, and the redemptive power of friendship. Every teacher and every parent watches children's relationships played out in front of them every day. We see the isolated child standing off to the side; we hear our own children gossip viciously in the car; we see how much our children miss their friends. We are able to call up memories, both joyful and excruciatingly painful, from our own childhood relationships. But our memories are not always a good guide to what we should be doing for our own children. Indeed, our social scars from middle school often lead us to worry when we shouldn't, hesitate when we should intervene, and fixate on our children's painful reports when they are, in fact, growing, coping, and adapting in the best possible way.

Very few grown-ups fully understand what is actually going on when children hurt one another's feelings, when they tease and betray each other. Are kids just "mean"? Why is it so hard to stop children from excluding one another? Why is it so hard for some children to make friends? What makes other kids so popular? Why is it that some children thrive with a friend or two and don't seem to care about popularity, while for others it is a matter of life and death?

I hope that by the time you finish this book, you will have the answers to these and many other perplexing questions. Developmental and clinical psychologists have researched the social lives of children in depth. There is an important body of scientific literature on the subject that has never, to my knowledge, been made available to the public in a comprehensive, reader-friendly form. I have been baffled that there have been no good popular books written about the complexities of children's friendships, social groups, and social cruelty. In addition, I think that the media's focus on the bully and bullying has oversimplified the issue and confused the public. The classic bully scenario is only a tiny part of what goes on among children. Similarly, the media's attention to "cool" kids does not illuminate what goes on with most children.

Best Friends, Worst Enemies is my attempt to take you inside the complex social worlds of children that researchers such as Willard Hartup, John Coie, and Kenneth Dodge have studied. On this journey, my clinical knowledge and my classroom observations-as well as my experiences as a parent-will guide you into the lives of children. The map I will employ to prevent us from getting lost in these complicated interactions has been drawn from the work of distinguished social scientists. We will travel the superhighways of popularity and the back roads of intimate friendship.

We will begin at my daughter's birthday party, seeing the tensions among twelve-year-old girls from the point of view of a parent. We will then go out into day care centers and schools and observe children leaving their mothers, playing with their toddler buddies, trying to find friends, and loving one another with great loyalty. We will talk to members of cliques in middle school and end up in high schools, where classmates haze one another cruelly-and forge lifelong, intimate friendships. I trust that Best Friends, Worst Enemies will illuminate the sometimes invisible forces that drive children's groups.

Best Friends, Worst Enemies also aims to provide teachers and parents with practical strategies for dealing with difficult social conflicts among kids. The last two chapters of the book will offer educators and parents concrete suggestions for creating more harmonious school environments and for supporting children's friendships at home and in the neighborhood. If you are a teacher, you should be able to read this book and know if you have an unusually cruel or dangerous situation in your classroom or if a rejected child needs a serious intervention. If you are a parent, you should be able to finish this book and know the answer to the question that most parents ask every day: "Is my child okay?" This book should tell you whether your child is doing okay socially or whether he or she is at risk and needs additional support.

Before we embark on this journey, there are a couple of introductions I need to make. First, I need to explain the point of view of this book. It is written through my eyes and experience as a child psychologist, school consultant, and parent. I couldn't keep the parent part of myself out of this book; I'll tell you why below. Second, I need to explain why this book doesn't emerge primarily from my work with children in therapy, as did my earlier books on the psychology of boys.

Third, I need to introduce the "we" behind the "I" voice that is used throughout the book, because Best Friends, Worst Enemies is the result of a collaborative effort of three people. We have chosen to write in the "I" voice, through the lens of my training and experience, because it is clearer for the reader. But my two collaborators, Catherine O'Neill Grace and Lawrence J. Cohen, have been instrumental at every stage in the creation of this book. All three of us possess extensive but very different experience with students in classrooms and with our own children. Finally, I want to introduce you to some of the children who will appear and reappear through Best Friends, Worst Enemies because they have been our best teachers.

Child Psychologist, Consultant and Parent

This book is written, as I said, from the point of view of my three identities-child psychologist, school consultant, and parent. I was trained to be a child psychologist, to do play therapy with small children and talk therapy with older kids and adults. I also was trained to conduct family meetings with children and parents together-and that's what I have done very happily for more than two decades. Over the past ten years, however, I have moved steadily out of the quiet and relative safety of my office into the rough-and-tumble world of psychological consultation in schools. The halls and classrooms of school buildings have provided an opportunity to see children at work-struggling to develop skills, meeting adult demands, avoiding some schoolwork, loving their friends, hating their enemies, and ultimately trying to feel good about themselves.

There are many wonderful moments in a school day, but schools are not sweet places. Any given school day can be ferociously painful for a child, as intense an emotional experience as anything one hears described in a therapist's office. Over the years, my work in schools evolved and I began to conduct workshops for teachers to help them understand the psychological forces swirling around them, which they cannot often stop to ponder during the fast-paced school year. I became a teacher of teachers. And then, as schools began to take more responsibility for educating parents, I was increasingly asked to address issues that concern them as well. Since 1990 I have run workshops for parents and teachers on twenty-two topics, including childhood depression, eating disorders, parent-teacher communication, and the emotional lives of boys.

I am perhaps best known for my work on the psychology of boys, contained in two books: Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, which I coauthored with Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most Asked Questions About Raising Sons. But I have also had an abiding interest in friendship, popularity, and social cruelty in children's lives and have conducted parent-teacher workshops on these issues for years. In fact, issues about children's friendships are closest to my heart. Parents have shown me that these are the issues in children's lives that they least understand. No speech that I give draws a bigger audience. No topic produces such agonized questions from both parents and teachers. No problem baffles veteran teachers in the way that a poisonous class dynamic does. And no teacher suffers more visibly than one who must witness the daily humiliation of a rejected child and not know how to stop it.

It would have been impossible for me to write this book just from the point of view of a psychologist or just from the point of view of a parent. Those two experiences have absolutely complemented one another. As a psychologist, I have seen rejected children in therapy and have worked with school administrators to try to help them. As a parent, I have watched my children make friends, lose friends, say dumb things, and miss social cues that were obvious to me. I have also seen my own kids discover solutions to social problems that never would have occurred to me.

Social Cruelty Is Out in the Open

Best Friends, Worst Enemies describes the ongoing drama of psychological pain and creativity in childhood. Some of the stories in this book are tragic; a couple of them end with the death of a child. Despite these tragedies, this book is not about mental illness nor, for the most part, is it about children who need to be in therapy. Arguably, more children should receive psychotherapy for social problems. Rejected children do suffer terribly. Certainly, helping excluded children is a major part of what guidance counselors do in elementary schools. However, the loneliness that children feel is not typically a complaint that brings children into a psychologist's private office.

Why not? Because there is a certain amount of social cruelty that we all live through without needing help. A woman was telling me that her daughter suffered some stinging experiences in school that she cannot forget. "She's thirty," said the mother, "and she still talks about them." The daughter was hurt. Those stings shaped her life, and yet she did not necessarily need treatment for what happened to her. The ongoing paradox is that some children experience intense pain and grow from it, while other kids are crushed by their peers.

For me the interesting thing about children's social lives is that the psychotherapy office doesn't offer the best vantage point from which to view the action. Unlike the hidden traumas of childhood, such as incest or physical abuse, when peers are tormenting a child the torture most often takes place out in the open, where almost everyone can see. The social phenomena that I describe in Best Friends, Worst Enemies are right under everyone's nose. Let us say, for example, that a girl has been devastated by the teasing she experiences at a middle school dance. The comments made by boys were hideously painful for her, and everyone witnessed her humiliation. Her classmates overheard the remark "ugly dog," and though the adult chaperones couldn't hear the comments, they understood the nature of the drama. What happens the day after the dance? The victim of that teasing will want to forget the incident as quickly as possible. She is highly unlikely to seek counseling for what happened to her. She might never make it to a counselor's office, though she cries herself to sleep for three nights and carries an enduring sense of shame for the rest of her seventh grade year.

This one example illustrates how my profession does not give me a special window on the social realms in which children live. To write this book I had to rely on a wide variety of my professional and life experiences, not on my work with children in therapy.

The Best Friends, Worst Enemies Team

I knew that I could not write this book alone. First, I wanted the help of a woman, because my experience and the research suggest that the texture of girls' friendships is different from that of boys' friendships. In this area my gender was a limiting factor-and the fact that I am the father of a daughter could broaden my experience only to a certain extent. I turned to Catherine O'Neill Grace for help. Catherine had been my editor at Independent School magazine for many years.

Catherine grew up in a Foreign Service family, so she and her parents and older brother bounced around the world a good deal as she was growing up. This meant befriending and then saying good-bye to a series of friends during her elementary school years. "The advantage of a childhood like that is that you learn to meet new situations with confidence and interest," Catherine says. "But underneath there's a lot of anxiety. You walk into a new school wondering, Do I know the social rules? Are my clothes okay? Will they think I'm cool?' I used to study the social customs of my peers like an anthropologist deep in the Amazon."

Throughout this book, even though it is written in the "I" voice, you will benefit from Catherine's personal experiences, her intuition about children, and her years as a middle school and high school English teacher. Though she isn't teaching teenagers at present, she lives among them on the campus of Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall, a day and boarding school in Waltham, Massachusetts, where her husband, Don, is head of school.

My other coauthor, Lawrence J. Cohen, is a psychologist and the author of a magical book about the play between children and their parents entitled Playful Parenting. Larry is a gifted therapist and writer in his own right and has helped enormously with the research for this book.

Of the three of us, Larry is the shyest. When he was in high school in New Orleans, he was accepted, but he always felt like an outsider. "Watching movies and reading novels, you get the idea that they are all written by outsiders getting revenge on the popular kids. But you don't have to be rejected to feel like an outsider," says Larry. "I was accepted, but like most people I had experiences that made me feel like an outsider. I was also shy. It was drama club that allowed me to be more visible. The breakthrough for my shyness was Arsenic and Old Lace, when I played Dr. Einstein, and later when I appeared in an Elaine May play called Adaptation. The nonjudgmental camaraderie of the drama kids was important to me."

For the record, and because I have revealed something about Catherine and Larry's social struggles, I must confess that I was often physically timid and frightened in middle school. When it came to team sports, it was difficult for me to be in the popular group. I have vivid memories of the seventh grade athletes, some of them my friends, who seemed to me to have a lock on cool, because they played baseball well. I hated the sports hierarchy and envied the physical ease of other guys. In contrast to them, I was a constant-and almost certainly annoying-talker. I was always trying to please, always trying to entertain, always feeling that I was just outside the inner circle.

Children Were Our Best Teachers

Over the course of two years Larry, Catherine, and I interviewed more than eighty children, teenagers, parents, and teachers. We gathered material not only from these formal interviews but also from my school consultation work, Larry's clinical work and his work on committees at his daughter's elementary school, and Catherine's experiences as a class-room teacher and member of a boarding-school community. I ran work-shops on the subject of classroom cruelty with hundred of teachers and conducted assemblies with several thousand middle school students, inviting questions, discussion, and stories from participants at each event.

We relied on our families as well. Larry's daughter, Emma, age ten, and my two children, Will, ten, and Joanna, sixteen, conducted an unplanned course in the vicissitudes of friendship for us. Each day they lived out social pleasures and group tensions, and we watched intently. I hope we weren't too intrusive; we certainly learned a lot from them. At times Joanna would appear briefly at our meetings held in my house and would answer questions from us. All three of our kids have read portions of this manuscript and have given us permission to use their stories. We have disguised the names of some of their friends and identified others who have also given us permission to use their real first names.

Catherine's goddaughter, Alex, who is nineteen, and her niece, Maeve, twenty, were a unique source of perspective. They were enormously helpful in providing us with stories about their own friendships growing up. Beyond that, they had the psychological maturity to share observations about their history with their parents and how that played out in their social development. Catherine also had a rich source of anecdotes from the students at Chapel Hill Chauncy Hall and from her essay-writing class at the Middlesex School. We have used these students' stories and writings. I was privileged to read the essays on friendship written for Mr. Zamore's senior writing class at Belmont Hill School, where I am the consulting psychologist.

Without the first-person testimony of many children, Best Friends, Worst Enemies would be as dry as the proverbial dust. If we have done our job, it will be the stories of children that make this book a memorable journey for the reader. We hope you will see children discovering their capacity for love, suffering from arbitrary and painful rejection by their peers, and developing their social creativity. The richness of children's friendship is the source of inspiration for this book. The pain of rejected children gives Best Friends, Worst Enemies its sense of mission. We hope the reader will leave us with new insights about the misery and the magic of childhood social relationships.

An Invitation to a Birthday Party

My daughter's twelfth-birthday party was a nightmare, a social train wreck. It was, of course, a sleepover. I still have the photos of the group at breakfast, seated around the dining room table: sluggish, cranky, ready to go home. And I was ready for them to go. There had been moments during the party the night before when I wanted to send them all packing instantly. "Get out," I wanted to shout. "You're all mean! You're all horrible."

My daughter, Joanna, now sixteen, has long since forgotten that party. It's ancient history to her; she has moved on with her life. When I reminded her recently of the events of that night, she gave a shrug of acknowledgment and went back to what she was doing. I can't forget it that easily.

Let me set the scene-time, place, and characters-for the drama. Joanna's birthday is in late June. That's a good month for birthdays, close enough to the end of the school year so that most of the kids you might want to invite are still around town. At the same time, late-June birthdays don't conflict with the inevitable round of end-of-school events. Best of all, the weather is usually good, which means we can hold a swimming party in our backyard, which borders a lake. When Joanna was nine or ten years old all we needed to throw a successful birthday party were some water balloons, a dock for kids to jump off, and of course cake and ice cream. But parties for twelve-year-olds are a lot more complicated than swimming and cake.

My wife, Theresa, and I had a sense of foreboding about the party when we saw Joanna's guest list. That year our daughter was leaving her public school to go to a private school that offered extensive support for her reading difficulties. Her departure made it inevitable that she was going to lose some friends. Her final social gesture as she left her public school was to invite the entire cool group from her class to her birthday party.

One girl who came to the party was Maria. Maria, like Joanna, was a little different from the mainstream of the class. Her mother was Irish Catholic, her father Korean. They represented an unusual diversity in the town. Maria wasn't absolutely at the center of the cool group either, but she was eager to be, and we had sensed in the past that Maria felt competitive with Joanna. Therein lies the tale of the birthday party.

Twelve girls arrived over about a forty-minute span: Maria and ten other schoolmates, joined by Joanna's lifelong friend, Erin-Claire. Erin-Claire is the daughter of dear friends. She has never gone to school with Joanna, but they have known each other since infancy and share a great loyalty. It would be unthinkable for Joanna to have a birthday party without Erin-Claire, and vice versa. E.C., as she is known, occupies a special category in Joanna's life, that of absolutely trustworthy friend.

Almost as soon as the girls arrived, the political machinations started. There was the usual discomfort and stiffness that afflicts most parties-child and adult-at the start. But there was more than just ice-breaking discomfort here. An invisible divider was up.

The wall crystallized when the girls were shown two adjoining rooms, Joanna's bedroom and the guest room. Maria immediately began to designate which girls should sleep in which room. Naturally, she picked the four coolest girls and said that they would be with her in the guest room. The girls obediently dropped their sleeping bags and backpacks where Maria told them to.

While Maria was upstairs orchestrating the sleeping arrangements, Joanna was downstairs trying to organize some games. The party was slowly beginning to warm up. Girls were swimming, jumping off the dock, and talking. The water balloons were clearly not going to fly. Twelve-year-olds considered themselves too old for those, it seemed, even though Joanna had wanted them. To her it was a tradition. I worried that my daughter's tastes weren't sufficiently sophisticated for this twelve- year-old crowd.

Then word filtered downstairs about Maria's management of the sleeping arrangements. Joanna immediately felt hurt. She began to feel attacked and aggrieved. She physically moved away from the rest of the group. E.C. sat with her. The rest of the girls were uncomfortable. Clearly no one knew how to take the lead in either stopping Maria or reaching out to Joanna. The in-group, including Maria, who had come outside, gathered together more tightly. Joanna and E.C. became a separate group of two. Joanna cried a bit, displayed some anger, and talked with E.C. She was clearly very sad, and E.C. was being a steadfast friend to her.

This went on for about half an hour or more, but it seemed much longer. I watched the scene with intense dismay and a sense of helplessness. I had heard what Maria was doing, but I hadn't known how to intervene when I was upstairs. I saw that Maria, for some unhappy reason, felt compelled to take over the sleeping arrangements.

What happened next was quite wonderful. Joanna had insisted that we buy cans of shaving cream when we shopped for the water balloons. She had seen some boys squirting shaving cream all over one another during a celebration in our town and she had been entranced with their freedom-as well as a bit disappointed that girls apparently weren't allowed to do that sort of thing in public. For her birthday she had wanted the possibility of shaving cream attacks.

Joanna and E.C. began to squirt shaving cream at one another. They started small, working their way up until they were covered from head to toe, hair included. All the other girls, who were hanging out by the edge of the lake, turned to watch and soon signaled that they too wanted to join the action. Joanna and E.C. each picked up a can of shaving cream and began squirting the other girls. I grabbed the camera and snapped pictures. It turned into a free-for-all-and the party was suddenly working. The best thing about it was that all the girls started to seem like girls again, carefree and innocent. Gone, for the moment, was the poisonous political atmosphere. There were only laughing girls covered with shaving cream, creating wild masks and hairdos with the foam all over their heads.

The party proceeded cheerfully for three more hours. The meat-eaters ate hot dogs and hamburgers; the vegetarians ate salad and chips. Things seemed so peaceful that I was unprepared when I heard shouting and weeping coming from the front stairwell. I ran in, and there stood Maria, angry, defiant, and shrieking denials at Joanna: "I didn't do anything. It's your problem!" And then Maria burst into a fury of tears.

Apparently, because of her social success with the shaving cream as well as the steadfast support of her friend E.C., Joanna had recovered enough confidence to confront Maria and accuse her of trying to wreck her birthday party.

Theresa took Maria aside to talk with her, and out poured a story of social misery. Maria felt genuinely overwhelmed by Joanna's accusation and proclaimed herself innocent of any malicious intent. She hadn't done anything, she sobbed; she had just wanted to be sure that she had friends to sleep next to at the sleep-over. Maybe nobody liked her, maybe she ought to go home right then.

In my mind Maria had been a power-hungry villain who tried to take over the party from a less socially powerful and more vulnerable Joanna. But it turned out that the "villain" was just another insecure middle schooler. Her "victim," meanwhile, had made a powerful stand of open confrontation.

As Theresa talked to Maria I talked with Joanna, who was accompanied by E.C. (They were inseparable at this point.) Joanna was totally charged up with anger at Maria and even more furious because Maria's outburst had seemed so manipulative. Joanna wanted a full confession and retraction from Maria.

There was no resolution. Despite our intervention-and we went as far as having them face one another and say they were sorry-Maria and Joanna sulked and avoided each other the rest of the night. The party ground on unhappily with videos, many more chips, and finally the mandatory very late bedtime. The next morning everyone was exhausted and very relieved to be going home. I don't think that we were the first parents on earth to watch the departing backs of children leaving a birthday party and think, "Thank God we don't have to do this again until next year."

Was it so uniquely horrible? Was my daughter damaged? The answer to these questions is no. I took you home with me to this terrible birthday party because this one event allows us to see all of the strands in a child's social world, the subject of this book. It's all there: devoted friendships, battles over popularity, parental anguish over social cruelty. These are the themes that we will be returning to again and again in this book. The social lives of children are a complex interplay of the group and the individual, of cliques and status hierarchies, of the sustaining loyalty of a friend to a friend. And the birthday party offers a particularly vivid lesson in the difference between social popularity and true friendship.

All parents experience pain about their children's social lives. There is no escaping it. A mother agonizes over her child's social dilemmas. A father immediately assesses whether his son or daughter is well received by a group of children. (And he's likely to register where his son ranks athletically compared to other boys.) We are social animals, and all of us are able to read the social reactions and strengths of others. Parents beam with pleasure at their child's successes and writhe with anguish over their failures.

Being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the time: helpless to give your child the reading skills he wasn't born to have, helpless to make him the soccer player he would like to be but never will be, helpless to give him a wonderful classroom teacher every year. The list of things that parents cannot do is almost infinite. As a parent, I am intimately acquainted with the knowledge that I cannot bend the universe on behalf of my children, much as I might want to.

As both a parent and a psychologist, I believe that there is no area in which a parent feels more powerless to make a significant difference than in relation to a child's social life. It's as if our children are stuck in an endless awful birthday party and we're watching helplessly from behind a one-way mirror. That "birthday party" might be the toddlers at play in the day care center, Little League, or a random group of children in the neighborhood. Wherever children gather, a complex group dynamic begins to pick up strength. It may turn into a storm or not, but it has power in a child's life. When a child gets home and says, "He hit me" or "She was mean to me" or "She started a club and didn't include me," our most ferocious parental instincts are aroused (I call them "mother grizzly bear feelings"). And yet there is no one to attack.

If another child unexpectedly hits and hurts your child, you want to hit that child back, but you must not. If other children ignore your child, you want to scream, but you probably will not. If your child lacks the ability to negotiate the complex social currents of the group of which she is a part, you want to hand her the skills to do it, but you cannot. We cannot step in and fix it because children have to learn to do that for themselves.

Children fear adult attempts to fix their social lives. When I asked a seventh grade class in New York, "What role should your parents have in your social lives?" one boy said succinctly, "Your parents should have no role in your social life." Kids fear that our interventions will make things worse; they don't trust us to catch the subtleties of their interactions. They have a point. The things we try to do often backfire, making things worse for our child. The things we can do-listen sympathetically, stay confident, provide opportunities for our children to connect with others, and remember the power of our own early attachment to and love for our child-feel inadequate. But they are not.

Even remembering this, watching our children suffer socially is very hard to bear. And it does make sense to be concerned or even worried. Research on friendship has found over and over how important peers are to children. Of course, as parents, we already knew this intuitively. And as grown-up children ourselves, we know it from experience. Children need friendship. They need a minimum level of acceptance by the group. They don't need a dozen close friends or one incredibly close friend, and they don't need to be the most popular kid in the class. But they need good-enough peer relationships. Without some friendships, children are psychologically at risk.

You have to live with your helplessness as you watch your child negotiate social terrain, knowing the stakes are high. Sometimes that sense of helplessness arises from misunderstanding the nature of child development, of not knowing what is supposed to happen or not trusting in a child's ability to grow. A physician from Nashville called me four times in one week. He had heard me give a lecture on the social world of children and wanted to talk to me and get a referral for a psychologist in his area "who thought like me." When I finally made contact with him I asked what he was so worried about. He said his daughter had no friends at school. I said I was sorry to hear that. Did she have any friends at all? He told me she had a wonderful friend in the neighborhood and they hung out together all the time. I said I was relieved to hear that. Then I asked, "How old is your daughter?"



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