Listen up for hints into your child’s peer style

Identify your child’s peer style in the following conversation:
“That’s not the way! Come, let me show you how to play with that light sabre.”
“No! It’s mine and I know what to do with it. See, like this!”
“Can I try?”
“What’s a light sabre?”

Is your child a leader who is an all-rounder that might be boss or bully; a star who won’t be upstaged; a joiner who is content to be part of the crowd; or a loner who might be out of the loop?

Find out by observing your child’s interactions with other children. Knowing your child’s peer style – how he relates to his friends – is necessary as you guide him in his relationships with his friends. And guide him you should.

According to family therapist Ron Taffel, developing “peer smarts” in your children will “enable them to cope with other kids, make choices, as well as keep and be a good friend”. This will go a long way toward shaping the nature of their friendships throughout their lives.

The learning curve

However, “it takes concrete experience to get across what an abstract concept like friendship really is,” Taffel says in his book Nurturing Good Children Now. And kids today don’t get this exposure.

Parents tend to network in the office and at places like country clubs, more than with the families who live next door – as their own parents might once have, a few generations ago. There are fewer opportunities for families to socialise with other families with children of similar age and mindset.

Instead, children now pick up the rules of friendship largely from pop culture. Because of common media experiences – think hit TV programmes like Gransazers and Teen Titans – “kids today have a ‘virtual’ sense of belonging” to a ready-made community of peers, notes Taffel. This can be a problem.

He says, “They sometimes relate less to real peers than to the omnipresent kiddie culture. And the messages they digest – central ideas disseminated in advertisements and commercials, on TV, and in movies – are probably not the values you want to teach:
‘I’m number one.’
‘What can you do for me?’
‘What have you done for me lately?’
‘Let me have it all.’
‘Let me go first.’
‘My sneakers cost more than yours; my sneakers are better than yours.’

“Such ‘antivalues’ spread from one child to another and affect the fabric of friendship. Because kids want so desperately to ‘belong’, they’re unwitting sponges, soaking up attitudes and behaviours they learn from the pop culture without knowing it … Therefore, in spite of your values, the symbols of what’s in and what’s out not only permeate, they help define your child’s world.”

Your defence
Noting that children need “peer smarts” more than ever, Taffel suggests to parents:

• Learn about your child through parent peer groups
In his opinion, parent networks are important because they help you “hear what goes on when your child is away from you and know how he’s interacting with other kids. In turn, this knowledge allows you to have some insight and control over what’s happening. When there are problems with the children, you’re able to intervene with his friends’ parents – quickly and appropriately”.

• Make your house a home to hang out in
Your children and their friends will feel protected and safe in welcoming homes. The other kids might even confide in you about problems they’d never tell their own Mums and Dads. Besides, by creating a place for them to “hang out” in you get to see and hear what they are in to, and you pick up the skills (and lingo) you’ll need to relate to them, too. Now that’s cool.

• Teach them the three Ts
Training your child to rely on her core reactions to her peers is one step toward teaching her to make wise decisions regarding her friendships, Taffel says. The Ts are: trust – which teaches children to have faith in their own feelings; take stock – which helps them make evaluations about other kids; and try to handle it – which reminds them that friendship is about trying, rather than being passive.

Your child’s peer relationship will be mirrored by what he sees at home. So ask yourself these questions to see if you’re imparting unwanted values to your child.