Do you consciously steer your children towards kids you like and away from those you don’t? All parents socially engineer, says Sara Allom, just not many fess up.
There is a little boy in my children’s lives who I just adore. He makes me belly laugh, out loud. He is cheeky, yes, but the kind of cheeky that is perfectly balanced with exceptional manners and respectfulness. He is always sensitive to other people’s feelings, but he has also mastered the comedy of perfectly harmless sarcasm, timed to utter perfection. He is, to put it very simply, extremely cool. I kind of want him to be my friend, even though I’m 43. And in lieu of that, well, I am just very pleased that he is my children’s friend.
Then there is another child, who is exactly the same age, and in exactly the same social group, but who is cut from a very different cloth. I can see that he might seem very sweet to some people. And I can see that for people who like to be needed he is probably the most perfect house guest. But for me? Not so much. I don’t dislike him exactly. He isn’t a bad child with unpleasant behavioural issues or a mean streak. But I can’t say I look forward to my conversations with him in the car on the way to taekwondo. In fact, I quietly dread them.
Brace yourselves for a confession. I have two sons, aged 11 and 8, and I don’t like all of their friends.
It’s a pretty shocking statement isn’t it? And it’s shocking because, the second we become parents, it seems that we take some unspoken oath to like all children of all ages and all temperaments for ever and ever, Amen. Or that’s how it feels anyway.
Well, I’m taking a stand. I don’t like them all. I have tried. I really have. But I can’t help it – there are certain children I would have to stay for a fortnight and there are others I won’t even have for a packet of crisps.
Let’s take birthdays as a barometer. If I’m buying a birthday present for a child I like, I will spend thought, time and money on it. If I am buying one for a child I’m not very fond of, well, I wont buy one at all. Instead I will turn to the present drawer, where no time or money need be expended whatsoever. And, when it comes to birthday parties, I’d rather not invite the troublesome children on the class list, but if I have no choice, then I will invite everyone and hope that my likes and dislikes are diluted by 30 dinosaur cupcakes and an exceptionally gifted balloon artist.
So, does my dislike of certain kids make me a bad person? Or is it perfectly acceptable to exercise a preference, even in children?
The fact is, whatever age we are, we exercise social preference all the time. I might be talking to my preferred group of mums in the playground at school pick up, but my son can walk out of his classroom arm in arm with someone I have absolutely no connection to. And he is arm in arm with them because he just plain likes them.
On most occasions I like that child too and, more often than not, the kids I don’t like aren’t my children’s cup of tea either. But this makes me wonder if I am somehow socially engineering them? Does my taste in people influence the friendship choices my children make?
Pre-school the answer is most definitely yes – our children’s friendships are a direct reflection of the people we socialise with, the close friends and family and other parents we met at NCT. But, in the bright and brave new world of Reception, our children start to navigate their very own social order, feeling their first exploratory way into engineering their own independent network.
Because let’s remember that our children are just people with their own in-built sensibilities. They are aware, from a very early age, of exactly who they like and who they don’t. In the early years they might not be able to tell us why (beyond “He broke my pencil on purpose Mummy!”), but most of the time they know, deep down, without any guidance or direction from us.
But what happens when that isn’t the case? What happens if my child decides he likes the class troublemaker, the biter or the bully? Well, chances are he wont like them for very long, because sooner or later he will be on the receiving end of that troublemaking, bite or broken pencil. And my job then is to pick up the pieces, steer him in another direction and try very hard not to say “I told you so”.
I think it’s actually perfectly natural that we prefer some children to others, and that we might make choices of play dates and birthday invitations based on those preferences. Because we simply can’t like everyone.
But what we can do is trust that our children will decide for themselves who they like. We can have faith that they will make good choices in their friendships – engineering their own social lives responsibly and picking the right people for them.
It’s one thing doing this for an 8 year old and an 11 year old – right now it seems that my children’s tastes in friends are mostly aligned with mine and that they simply like the same kinds of people I do, phew. But I know that this situation is unlikely to last forever because, in the not too distant future, my sons will be choosing girlfriends (or boyfriends). I hope they choose them because of their warm smile, their gentle wit and their enhanced emotional intelligence. But if they are anything like I was at 16 they will choose them for their experimental body piercing and their ability to buy alcohol under 18.
At that stage the stakes are much higher than picking up the pieces of a broken pencil, because then we are faced with picking up the pieces of a broken heart.Sara Allom is a freelance writer and creative consultant based in Surrey. She has two boys, two dogs and can mostly be found copywriting. See more from Sara at www.saraallom.com or follow her on Twitter.