I live on the island of Alameda, California — here on the island there is a place that has begun to wear on me. It’s called Pump It Up, a favorite among local parents for children’s birthday parties, and there is nothing inherently bad about this place. I suppose selfishly I do not like it because I have not connected with many people in the parent circle of my kids … and this type of event is solely for our kids. It is boring and no longer novel (because of the amount of times we’ve all been there), and I find myself questioning my existence every time it is my turn on the rotation to take one (or both) of my children to one of these parties. (I wonder if my parents had a similar disdain for Chuck E. Cheese?)
Since I am a psychology geek, I do take solace that these parties provide fertile ground to ponder the value of friendships. One, because it is a fascinating place to watch the storming, norming, forming marvels of childhood. Two, since my children are preoccupied, the experience gives me the space to mindfully explore my own loneliness and my lack of sensibilities in building rapport with strangers (i.e. the other care givers that somehow pulled the short straw that day). The recent resurgence and virality of Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study (which, in part, indicates that men with happier childhoods likely have stronger relationships in old age) has had me recently pondering these subjects more deeply than usual.
Please do not get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want to be friends with the parents of my kid’s friends. On the contrary, science backs up the notion that good friends can be one of life’s greatest gifts. Alas, I suspect at least half of you reading this are better at building and preserving close relationships than me. If one’s ability to acquire friends has a standard distribution, I am for certain on the losing end of the bell curve. I have always been an odd ball. My psyche is staffed by Tim Burton characters — witty, funny, yet flawed and weird looking. These characters don’t stay in the cage long during cocktail conversations, and they get apathetic easily — they’re looking for wit and humor on the other end, not another conversation about child rearing and my day job. I do have a script for the latter, but it is long and boring. Once this script is triggered, I have literally had parents simply walk away as I meekly fade out my dialogue, embarrassed that I have killed yet another one.
At the risk of doing that to you here, let me get on with it. I know I have to try harder. In her book Friendships Don’t Just Happen, Shasta Nelson points out that making, keeping and changing friends is perhaps one of our most important skills. In reality, I think there are a lot of people like me that feel “developing” friends can be a messy proposition. I, for one, remember reading the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and then putting it down feeling almost as dirty as I did when completing The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Authenticity is a personal value of mine, so I don’t want to boil down making friends to a “system” — so at these parties I have stopped trying and instead navel gaze while watching the kids play…
Parents have a significant influence on who our kids will be friends with
Different aspects of a child’s personality can be assessed simply by observation (e.g. self-control, self-esteem, mood, relationships with others and self-reliance). I personally look for self-reliance in my kids since it correlates with success. Self-reliance has been defined by Diana Baumrind, a researcher of human development from the University of California, Berkeley, as ‘the ability of the child to handle his[/her] affairs in an independent fashion relative to other children his [or her] age.’ Things to foster in kids in this regard are: ease of separation from you, willingness to be alone at times, leadership interest and ability, as well as pleasure in learning new tasks. Research by Baumrind (1967) shows that the parenting style that resulted in well-developed self-reliance includes being firm, loving, demanding and understanding. I think my wife and I are doing the best we can here, and building this self-reliance will hopefully lead our kids to more secure friendships.
Less is known about the influence friends and peers have on our child’s development
We know as our kids move through developmental stages, they become increasingly dependent on peer relationships and peer communication. There is little doubt we also influence this. Salient connections have been found between the relationship we have with our kids when compared to their later relationships with friends, as well as with their future romantic partners (Farley & Kim-Spoon, 2014). For instance, one longitudinal study found that adolescents who were insecurely attached to their fathers were more likely to develop an insecure attachment to their best friends. Similarly, insecure attachment to mothers led to more insecure attachments to romantic partners later in life (Doyle, Lawford, & Markiewicz, 2009). Clearly, building strong bonds with our kids is important, because ultimately they get the final decision who they keep as friends.
Why does friendship matter for our kids?
How our children evolve getting along with their peers can be an important predictor of their academic success. North American studies show that children who have a better relationship with their classmates perform better in school, and peer acceptance and attachment have been linked to academic achievement (Kingery, Erdley, & Marshall, 2011). Kids with a bigger social network have more opportunities for engagement, encouragement and support. An extensive literature review by Burack and colleagues showed that children with more positive peer relations also show more prosocial behavior, self-esteem and perceived support, and are less likely to develop depression, aggression and anxiety (Burack et al., 2013). Close relationships with peers have been found to provide children with a safe base from which he or she can explore and develop (Laible, Carlo, & Raffaelli, 2000).
Why does friendship matter for us?
I am in my 40s now. Unfortunately, a simple truth is that once parenthood hits it gets more difficult to connect with others. There is a really good 2012 New York Times article by Alex Williams where he examines the topic of making friends as an adult. Williams points out to make close friends three conditions need to be fulfilled: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages interactions that can be confidential. Unfortunately, these conditions are often difficult to fulfill once we have a job, a partner and/or a family.
Do I work too hard to have friends?
Some authors wonder if becoming successful results in having less contact with family and friends, which could create a sense of loneliness – ‘the top is not a crowded place’ (Reinking, & Bell, 1991). However, various scientific studies contradict the notion it is lonely at the top. Those who hustle actually have reported less loneliness compared to those that work fewer hours in comparison (Bell et al., 1990), and another study from the 1990s looked at people’s position in organizational hierarchy (which was interpreted as a level of success) and their corresponding loneliness. The findings support the premise that employees working at higher levels of an organizational hierarchy are not lonelier when compared to those working at lower levels (Reinking, & Bell, 1991). This is further supported by a recent Harvard Business Review article currently making the rounds: Does Work Make You Happy? Evidence from the World Happiness Report.
Conclusion: True friendships are invaluable
The final act of a Pump It Up party is the cutting of the cake. It is at this point I generally find myself pinching my leg until it is time to leave. The uneasiness reminds me I miss adult parties with my own friends; but the truth is this is self-inflicted misery — merely a by-product of not prioritizing pre-existing relationships accordingly. I can do better. Kid’s parties, whether I like them or not, are also important for developing good social habits in my children. The influence I yield about viewpoints on friendship influences my children’s behaviors and characteristics. It will develop how they relate to their peers. Science tells me children with more secure attachments, develop more secure friendships. My children’s ability to connect with their peers will likely influence their academic achievement since being accepted by your peers is correlated with academic success. I also know that the simple truth I am mindful of all of this means no matter how bad I fuck up (and I will), they’ll probably turn out okay.
As we grow older, for many (myself included) it is simply difficult to meet new people who become close friends, so we revere early relationships which provide us the positive support and encouragement we need to continue to develop and grow. Those that get my newsletter know my little brother recently passed away. If it was not for the support of my best friend from college, Micah, I don’t think I would have made it. If you are familiar with Dunbar’s work, then you already know science says we can only have five close friends anyway; if true, I’m truly a lucky man Micah is one of them.
We need the bonds of friendship to flourish. The presumption that people who work more become detached from their family and friends has not been supported by science, so this cannot be used as an excuse. We can, however, do a better job staying connected to old friends no matter what the distance and circumstances. As the findings from the Grant and Glueck study suggest, it might be one of the best things we can do for our well-being.
So … maybe it’s time to get the gang back together, tap a keg, and rent a bounce house suitable for adults? We won’t let the kids in, they can sit outside, bored; let them talk about how silly and annoying we are for a change.
Sources & further reading:
Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.
Bell, R., Roloff, M., Vancamp, K., & Karol, S. (1990). Is it lonely at the top – Career success and personal relationships. Journal of Communication, 40(1), 9-23.
Burack, J. A., D’Arrisso, A., Ponizovsky, V., Troop-Gordon, W., Mandour, T., Tootoosis, C., & … Fryberg, S. (2013). “Friends and Grades”: Peer Preference and Attachment Predict Academic Success among Naskapi Youth. School Psychology International, 34(4), 371-386.
Doyle, A.B., Lawford, H., Markiewicz, D. (2009). Attachment style with mother, father, best friend, and romantic partner during adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19:690–714. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2009.00617.x.
Farley, J. P., & Kim-Spoon, J. (2014). The development of adolescent self-regulation: Reviewing the role of parent, peer, friend, and romantic relationships. Journal Of Adolescence, 37433-440. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.03.009
Kingery, J. N., Erdley, C. A., & Marshall, K. C. (2011). Peer Acceptance and Friendship as Predictors of Early Adolescents’ Adjustment Across the Middle School Transition. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 57(3). 215-243.
Laible, D. J., Carlo, G., & Raffaelli, M. (2000). The Differential Relations of Parent and Peer Attachment to Adolescent Adjustment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29(1), 45-59.
Reinking, K., & Bell, R. A. (1991). Relationships among loneliness, communications competence, and career success in a state bureaucracy: a field study of the ‘lonely at the top’ maxim. Communication Quarterly, (4), 358.