When my son was about four I read the New York Times bestseller “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,” (Ballantine Books, 1999) by Michael G. Thompson. The book completely changed, or I should say, directed, the way I’ve raised my son, who is now 10. Based on Thompson’s work consulting in private schools, mostly in the Northeast, the crux of the book focuses on the importance of teaching boys an emotional vocabulary — to give names to feelings and emotional situations so that they can “read” the emotions of others as well as talk about, analyze, and process the myriad emotional scenarios that fill their days and nights. It has worked beautifully with my son, who said to me, after a tiff with a friend last year, “He doesn’t understand a quarter of my nature.”
Thompson, an educational consultant and co-director of the Cambridge Center for School Consultion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has since written several other books, including “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Worlds of Children” (with Catherine O’Neill Grace and Lawrence J. Cohen, Ballantine, 2001), about which Publishers Weekly wrote, “Not since Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach has there been such a sensitive and practical guide to raising healthy children.” He speaks on “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Friendship Development, Popularity, and Social Cruelty in Childhood and Adolescence,” on Monday, April 10, at Princeton Day School.
Thompson, who grew up in New York City, the son of an architect and a housewife, graduated from Harvard in 1968 with a bachelors in government, earned a masters in education there in 1972, then earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology in 1980 from the University of Chicago. He has appeared on the Today Show, Oprah, 20/20, 60 Minutes, the Early Show, Good Morning America, and NPR, and has been quoted in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report. He is married to Theresa McNally, a psychotherapist, and is the father of Joanna, 20, and Will, 15.
He is also a highly sought-after speaker. In the last month alone his calendar included speaking engagements in Paris, Helsinki, Zurich, Beijing, Bangkok, and Singapore. We caught up with him via E-mail to gain some insight into the difference between friendship and popularity and to understand why the pain we still remember from middle school can get in the way of supporting our own children’s forays into the social world.
Where are you writing from and what are you doing there?
I am writing from Singapore, where I have been presenting seminars for the Ministry of Youth Culture and the Principals’ Center, a center for continuing education for educators all over Asia. Just before this I was presenting at the International School of Beijing.
Your April 10 talk at Princeton Day School is on best friends, worst enemies, and social cruelty. What do you remember about your own childhood that exemplifies this topic?
I was not a good athlete at the boys’ school I attended, and I was keenly aware that the good athletes were the very popular kids. They had a clique with a secret handshake and set of secret initials from which I was excluded.
In your book you make a keen distinction between friendship and popularity. What is this and why is it so important for parents to understand the difference?
A seventh grade boy put it to me this way, when I asked him if being popular means having lots of friends. He said, “Oh, no, if you’re really popular you can’t be sure of any of your friends. You don’t know if they’re really your friends or if they’re your friends because you’re popular.”
He understood that friendship and popularity are two different things. Friendship is something that happens between two kids that’s intimate, reliable, and trustworthy. Popularity is the group’s consensus that you have some attractive traits. Not all our kids have those traits and therefore not all our kids can be popular. The two important points this book hammers home are that, with the exception of those kids at the bottom of the social hierarchy ladder, there’s no relationship between popularity and later mental health; and that when faced with social cruelty, having a friend or two can save you.
I think parents get confused about friendship and popularity because: 1) they want their children to be happy and when their kids are not popular the parent suffers inside and forgets that the child has reliable friends, and 2) we all have confused feelings from middle school in our brains. I think readers of “Best Friends, Worst Enemies” will be surprised when their own middle and high school experiences come flooding back and they find themselves saying, “Oh, my God, that’s so true. I remember that.” We all have vast experience with the social lives of kids in school because we all lived through grade school. And we all have at least some scar tissue from those experiences.
The biggest problem I see in schools are moms who want to arrange for their children’s popularity in a way they weren’t able to arrange for themselves when they were in school. We all went through it. Our children have to go through it. You can’t, as a parent, go back and make it different for your child.
What are the biggest mistakes parents make when they try to help their children negotiate rocky social terrain?
When my daughter, Joanna, was in third grade, she chased after the most popular girl in class who didn’t, in my wife’s and my opinion, treat her all that well. When we tried to dissuade our daughter from her pursuit of this girl, all she would say was, “Mom, dad, she’s my friend!”
Most kids will tell you the biggest mistake their parents make is that they try to pick and choose their friends. Too often parents try to discourage bad friendships when they should be supporting good friendships. Or they support good friendships in dorky ways that no kid could ever take seriously. Let’s take a situation where a mother tells her daughter, “Why don’t you be her friend, she’s so nice!” How do you think the daughter will react to that?
Telling your children not to hang around with this or that kid because they use bad words or because they’ll be a bad influence is one of the least effective strategies there is. The “bad” kid becomes forbidden fruit and therefore highly appealing. It also sends a message to your child that you see him or her as weak and as a follower.
What sets “Best Friends, Worst Enemies” apart from other books on the social lives of children?
Much of the popular literature is descriptive rather than explanatory. Readers of my book are going to come away with a better understanding than they’ve ever had of what’s happening to their kids, and also what happened to them when they were their kid’s age. As I said earlier, if this book makes the reader see their middle school years through a new lens, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.
I think this book tells an interesting developmental story that hasn’t really been fully explored. What do I mean by developmental? For example, the discovery of social power comes as early as pre-kindergarten (or even earlier), but the systematic use of social cruelty is a phenomenon of third and fourth grade.
You travel internationally for your work. What have you observed about the friendships and/or social cruelty that children in other countries experience? Are there any common threads or lessons we can learn from them?
Friendship and popularity are not nearly as important in China and Korea, where families are much closer than in the U.S. and less involved with social activities for kids because the family focus is on academic achievement. Korean parents, for example, don’t schedule play dates for their children; instead, they schedule music lessons and tutoring. It is hard, I am told, to get any play dates with their children.
Can teasing damage a child?
If you’re in the bottom ten percent socially of the kids in your class, you’re seriously at risk for depression and for psychiatric maladjustment in adult life. A fifth grade boy in California described the social situation in his classroom this way: “In this class we have the king and the queen, the court, and the commoners.” The problem is there are also the untouchables. The greatest and cruelest power popular kids have is to keep their peers from befriending rejected kids at the bottom of the social ladder. In many ways it is a power worse than overt bullying. In the classroom overt bullying gets seen eventually and you get labeled a bully. But it’s the power of a popular person to say, “Why would you want to be his/her friend?” that isolates a rejected child. Unfortunately it happens all the time.
What enables some children to grow from social cruelty, while others are crushed by their peers?
The love of their parents or being valued in other arenas of life. Having a place in your church group, in your grandparent’s heart, or with your cousins can go a long way toward ameliorating the pain of social exclusion. It also helps if you have skills other kids don’t have and some place where you can exercise those skills. Extracurricular activities can be extremely important for kids who are socially excluded.
What’s your bottom line advice for parents with respect to nurturing their children’s friendships?
I always tell parents to support their children’s friendship, invite other children into their homes, and socialize across generations. Forget about popularity, don’t gossip, and don’t mentally go back to middle school.
Michael G. Thompson, Monday, April 10, 7:30 p.m., presented by CommonGround, Princeton Day School, Great Road. “Best Friends/Worst Enemies: Friendship Development, Popularity, and Social Cruelty in Childhood and Adolescence,” presented by Michael G. Thompson 609-924-6700.