From the time our kids are still little we emphasize the importance of knowing all about strangers. Who they are, what you should and shouldn’t do with and around strangers, etc. But what about friends? When it comes to kids understanding friends, there is often this gray area between strangers and friends, which then leads to a gray area on what is OK and not OK when it comes to those that fall in this area. This isn’t a deep, philosophical post about our adult understanding of what is a “true friend” versus an acquaintance. This is about young children. It’s about our kids understanding where that line is drawn between the gray area and friends. Why? Because it often is unclear but it really matters!
As a mom of special needs children, I try to be extra cautious when it comes to strangers, friends, etc. especially with our oldest who is on the Autism Spectrum and has a harder time with comprehending relationships. When we had a scary incident this summer with our daughter, though, who has a pretty good grasp on this (or at least we thought), I realized we’re not always so clear on what a “friend” really is.
We were at the park with a group of friends, and most of the kids were going to play T-Ball. She asked me if she could play with her friends over there and points to where they’re playing T-Ball. She is at an age where it’s OK to go and play with friends, so I say yes, of course, assuming she’s referring to our friends over there. When we were getting ready to leave and I couldn’t find her anywhere, my heart dropped. I was terrified! She was a little farther down with a group of girls I’ve never seen before. Sure they looked like they were having fun, but I was asking why in the world she wasn’t with our friends. When she explained she was with her friends, I was shocked. She just met them! What made her think they were her friends?
Her answer? They were playing on the playground, and they were nice to her.
I fear this misunderstanding was caused by something we’ve also done since our kids were young, and something I often see other parents do as well. In fact, it’s in their books and on TV shows. The message we often send is that a friend is a child they’ve met somewhere and got along with. In fact, I’d even venture to say many shows and books even refer to other children as “friends” just to encourage being nice. Why can’t we encourage our kids to be nice to others without calling them “friends?”
I look back and think of all the times I said, “Did you say bye to your new friend?” Then I wonder why they consider someone they just met their friend? Adults they just meet are strangers but kids they just met are friends? I feel like that’s the message we’ve been sending. What about their parents or whoever they may be with? We don’t know them, and they are still strangers.
We’re so blessed everything was OK, but the thoughts that ran through my head were terrifying. As a parent, it’s hard not to beat ourselves up for mistakes, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t learn from our mistakes – and even the mistake of others. It’s always hard to put ourselves out there, but if my experience will help others realize they may be making a similar mistake, it is worth sharing it.
Kids Understanding Friends
We truly need to think about it. What message are we sending? I definitely learned the hard way we’ve been sending a message that is completely unclear. There is a gray area in between strangers and friends, and it’s important that we make that very clear to our children. Call it what you prefer – acquaintance or even “buddy” (though make it clear there is a difference between a “buddy” and a “friend.”). Then set boundaries on what is OK and not OK with them.
Some healthy boundaries may include things like: It’s OK to talk and play with them while under your supervision, and It’s OK to ask us to talk to their parents about getting to know them better by getting their contact information and planning get togethers. After all, we would ultimately love if they do make new friends!
So what defines friends? Perhaps your definition may be more or less strict as ours, but some general guidelines we’ve shared with our kids are:
- You aren’t meeting them for the first time. Meeting someone for the first time automatically means they aren’t a friend. Friendships (and the trust that goes along with it) aren’t built in a day.
- You know their name (and we know their parents’ names). Our kids aren’t very good at remembering names, so this may not be applicable for most, but if our kids know their names, it means we’ve interacted with them pretty frequently, but it’s important that we know their parents as well!
- We have some way to contact them. Although I’m not a “phone person,” phone is definitely the best contact information to have. Besides, most people can text now! 😉
Whatever you decide works for your family, I can’t stress enough how important it is for kids to truly understand what a friend is and to have appropriate boundaries based on how well you know them. It may seem innocent enough for kids to call all other kids their friends, but it’s important to remember this can be confusing and ultimately unsafe. It’s important to remember – it’s not just about the kids – we really need to know their parents as well!
How do you help your children distinguish between a friend and an acquaintance?