Positive relationships are what make life rich and rewarding. Whether you are an adult or a child, they are one of the keys to happiness for us all. Friendships matter, in the sense that they feed us personally; they are very nourishing, they give us a sense of ourselves and a sense of connection, love, closeness and, of course, they can also be very productive. School is often the first social environment outside the home that children enter into. Some take to it with great gusto whilst others find it all a little more challenging, especially as far as making friends is concerned. If we focus on results however, at the expense of relationships, I believe that we do children a great disservice; worse than that, we set them up for a potentially unhappy adolescence and an incomplete adult life.
Early in my prep school career I used to coach cricket. The Head of Games at this particular school understood exactly where I sat on the experience versus skill matrix but we were all, boys and me alike, very enthusiastic champions of the game! We played on the pristine pitches of Regent’s Park in central London and my young squad always made a beeline for the pitch closest to the zoo end of the park, as it afforded us uninterrupted – and entirely complimentary – views of the elephants and, on a good day, the giraffes. Two boys in particular who were great friends produced an eccentric and increasingly complex set of rules each week, usually to do with how loud the elephants were trumpeting, or how many giraffes appeared to be gazing over the fences at us, and how put off both batsmen and bowlers were as a consequence. Putting their heads together, the boys found endless amusement in introducing increasingly weird and wonderful rules.
Golden memories both for me, and the boys themselves it turned out, as I recently bumped into one of them, his school days now far behind him. Accompanied by his wife and with a baby son in his arms, he was delighted to tell me that to this day he is still great friends with his former team mate. Their shared outlook on life and that love of the comical and absurd formed the building blocks for a lifelong friendship: 'I never realised then how much it mattered, Sir', he explained, 'but that magic mix of being prepared to observe life from a different perspective, combined with a ridiculous sense of humour, is what I still look for in any friends today.'
We can be led into believing that making friends is a pretty simple business – be kind, be nice, do the right thing, and we will all have more friends than we know what to do with. For some this is the case of course, which is all well and good; however, maintaining friendships, especially when we are young, can be more problematic for some than others. It seems to me that some parents are also concerned less with whether their children will have any friends at all, but whether they will have the right sorts of friends, whatever that means. Children will fall out with one another over all sorts of issues – big and small – and being at odds with your peers can be traumatic when you are small. Fortunately, children are also, in my experience, incredibly forgiving creatures and mercifully can be easily guided to see the good in one another again, even if in the heat of an argument that might seem like an impossibility to them!
Children can also on occasion be drawn into unhealthy friendship circles where the collective influence can result in a negative impact on an individual within that group – perhaps their behaviour suffers, their self- confidence is knocked, or they find themselves side-lined or excluded.
Talking is always good and finding the time to ensure children can be brought together to discuss what went wrong and why is a critically important part of how we go about trying to set friendships back onto a positive course. Bringing those who think they can no longer be friends together again, and with the sensitive help of a mediating adult encouraging them to arrive at a meaningful and clear solution to what they have perceived as a problem, is terribly important. Children will ultimately be reassured by knowing that there are adults in their lives who can help them resolve friendship difficulties. This takes time, of course, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach here. Whatever language is modelled by adults to try to encourage children to repair their friendships, it is critically important that every discussion is framed within a deliberate positive bias. Of course, reminding children to end with an apology to one another, in my experience, always helps!
I have a great deal of sympathy for parents when they see their children’s friendships go awry because it can often be the most distressing experience of a child’s life to date, and consequently can be an all-consuming crisis within the home. It is tempting for distressed parents to try and sort out the problem themselves, by picking up the phone or marching round to see a parent of a child they see as at fault. There are always two sides to every story, no matter how strongly one side is recounting theirs. It's worth remembering the words of Michelle Obama: ‘when they go low, we go high’. Inspired by those wise words, I would strongly caution against any parents leaping in to sort matters out before they are fully aware of all the facts. My advice is to take your concerns to the school. School staff operate with a degree of distance that parents simply do not have and as a consequence our ability to maintain impartiality and perspective, when parents have found that hard to do, is our single biggest advantage when it comes to restoring and repairing friendships that have gone wrong.
Patterns of behaviour we establish early on in our lives can sometimes be hard to shake off later in life. School by its very nature is a formative environment, so if as a child we become used to not seeking help when our troubles become too much for us, there is a danger in my mind that this reluctance to seek the support of others will remain into adolescence and beyond. It is important for children and parents alike to realise that there should be no shame or anxiety in reaching out to others for help.
Our ability to build relationships, to connect with people and to understand interpersonal dynamics is a fundamental component of leading a fulfilled personal life and succeeding professionally. There is little in this world that beats the love and comfort found in true friendship and I remain optimistic about the role educators can have in encouraging children to discover the joy inherent in making new friends and knowing how to keep them, a feeling perhaps best summed up by C. S. Lewis: Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? Thought I was the only one.’