Teaching Children about Friends and Friendship
February 1987

“Teaching Children about Friends and Friendship,” Ensign, Feb. 1987, 50

Handbook for Families

Teaching Children about Friends and Friendship

“You’re not going out with those hoodlums again, are you?” calls the concerned but cynical father as his teenage son prepares to go out for the evening with friends.

“Hey, Dad, they’re not hoodlums. You know they’re not. They’re my friends, and they’re good guys,” responds the son, with the only defense he knows.

For teenagers and parents, the evaluation of friends is not always territory for agreement. The dispute often revolves around the undesirable habits or manners of the friends and their potentially harmful influence. But resolving this issue can unite children and parents at a critical time in their lives. One family did it this way:

“We decided that when one of our children has a friend whose behavior or attitude or dress or habits bother us, we would consider it a family matter. Friends are important because they can influence our children.

“But we decided the influence can go both ways, and our family’s influence could be just as great on the friends as theirs might be on our children. So, rather than saying Nathan would have to see less of that boy who uses rough language, or Elizabeth would not be allowed to spend time with her friend who dated earlier than our children are allowed to, we invited association, but on terms that we could approve.

“We encouraged our children to invite such friends often to do things with us as a family. We were not trying to make them feel uncomfortable or put them on the spot. And we weren’t trying to examine them. We just believed that if they were made welcome, they might like the way we do some things. And if they liked the way we did things, they might choose to do them that way too, or at least respect our way. And, too, we learned to appreciate them in turn.

“Our attempts to strengthen these friendships has yet to fail. Every young friend of our children who has been welcomed this way, or ‘adopted’ as our children put it, has proven to be a worthy companion for our children, and most have become close and valued friends. If the method sounds idealized, maybe it’s because it is one of the ‘hidden treasures of knowledge’ promised those who attempt to follow the commandments.”

Starting When They Are Young

Ideally, the best results are obtained when father and mother are conscious of their young child’s friends and their activities. Parents need to bear in mind that though young children’s activities may all seem insignificant and merely “fun and games,” to children it is serious business—even when they are pretending, laughing, and being silly.

Of course, there will be times of tears and frustration as they learn about the “give and take” of friendship. These should be met with calm understanding by parents. Disagreements between playmates are not uncommon and should not lead parents to hasty conclusions about their child’s inability to mix with others. All children disagree, even argue. (In fact, here, parents would do well to take a lesson from children about forgiveness.) Little children are very quick to make up with each other and carry on their games, even after angry disputes.

At certain times, our very best reasoning powers must be summoned to help children see things from each other’s point of view. Moreover, as children learn to work out their disagreements without fighting, they gain social grace and learn to see the other person’s point of view. Like acquiring language skills, children need to acquire a sense of otherness—that is, a sense that other people have needs just like their own. Parental example in this regard is vital.

Discovering and appreciating the needs of others brings a new kind of joy to a child—learning to make others happy. This is a central element of friendship. But like many virtues, pleasing others can be taken to excess. Finding the balance between pleasing others and doing what is right begins at a young age and takes years of practice. Children must develop a healthy sense of self-worth that allows them to respect others, not valuing their opinions too highly, yet not regarding their friends as being less important than themselves.

As children grow, they begin to select more intentionally who they will and will not play with. Sometimes this choice is based on sound understanding, but sometimes it is based on very superficial observation.

Ours is a society of appearances. Much of what appeals to us is presented in such a way as to appear in its best light. So we tend to present ourselves in a similar way to each other for evaluation. People “check each other out” just as they do a commodity for purchase. Does he wear the right brands of clothing? Is she cute enough? Are they part of the popular crowd? In these views, children fail to appreciate others for what they are rather than what they merely appear to be. It is a false way to see the world.

Friendship within the Home

The first friendships children develop are with the members of their own family. Indeed, it is important that our children are friends with each other and with us, so they will not be desperate for acceptance outside the family. Friendship bonds the family unit together as well and offers us a chance to help nurture those relationships. It enables us to teach children how to be a good friend and what good things friendship should include—as well as some things friendship should not include.

Furthermore, if we can become friends with our children by creating conditions of trust, respect, and love, our home will be open and appealing to our children’s friends as they grow up. Their friends will recognize our home as an enjoyable place to come and will respect, if not adopt, the standards that make our home what it is.

Understanding Teenagers and Their Friends

Children spend increasingly more time with their friends as they grow up. This is as it should be. What they are doing is preparing to function as adults, gradually separating themselves from us. But sometimes this can be hastened too quickly by tensions in the home that cause children to seek companionship elsewhere. Either too strict or too permissive a home atmosphere can create unfulfilled needs. If parents are too restrictive, a child may seek friends who will allow him to make decisions without interference. On the other hand, he may turn to friends for support if his parents are too permissive. A child who is allowed to do whatever he wants may seek associates who will give him some structure and direction for his life, even if the direction is wrong.

By such extremes, parents can influence their children’s selection of friends and circumstances. Raising a teenager is like holding a bird in your hand. If held too tightly, he will be crushed; if held too loosely, he will fly away.

Guiding Teenagers into Appropriate Friendships

Parents can achieve the right balance between control and freedom in guiding their teenagers by adopting some basic gospel principles. The first is consistency—being just and fair in setting rules and in administering discipline when those rules are broken. Teenagers need consistency in their lives. Treated consistently, children develop a sense of security. Inconsistency causes frustration and may motivate a child to spend most of his time with friends he can rely on.

The same is true of unconditional love. When there is chronic tension or poor communication in the home, a child will almost always seek closeness and understanding elsewhere. Until parents can offer an atmosphere of love and acceptance without “put-downs” and criticism, no amount of worry about our children’s choice of companions will do much good. Once we can talk with them without an accusing tone of voice and tempers flaring, there is much we can do to build their understanding of friendship and the value of friends who bring out the best in them.

We can create the right forum for a discussion of choosing the right friends, for example, by reading together such wonderful stories of friendship as the Old Testament account of David and Jonathan. (See 1 Sam. 18–20.) Another story of friendship is found in the Book of Mormon, in the story of Alma and the sons of Mosiah. (See Mosiah 27:8–10.) These stories can be compared with each other and with modern circumstances in such a way that youth will see the importance of selecting good friends who uphold gospel standards.

Elder Marion D. Hanks spoke of the importance of friendship:

“One of the most important choices any of us ever make in this life is our choice of companions with whom we shall share our time and lives … Companions can do wonderful things for us. If they are happy, generous, thoughtful, honest people, we will very likely be that way when we are with them. … If they habitually use clean and decent language we will likely talk that way, too.

“If our companions are prone to kind and noble thoughts, they will in all likelihood help us turn our thoughts in that direction also. If their habits are sound and sensible we will be influenced towards such habits. If they do things that are wholesome and constructive, we will likely go along.” (Church News, 30 Jan. 1960, p. 3.)

The kinds of friends our children choose are often influenced by the kinds of friends we choose. Children will watch us as we bring our friends into the home to see what kind of people we choose to spend our time with. Do our friends respect our children and treat them kindly? Do our friends have values similar to our own?

In one ward, a father was asked to explain why he was so well liked by the youth of the ward and why so many young people liked to go over to his house. The man did not know the answer, but his wife answered for him. She said, “He always asks and remembers the names of his children’s friends. When he sees them again, he calls them by name and takes a personal interest in them, sometimes joking with them, sometimes asking them things about their families and their lives. The young people can tell that he is genuinely interested in them.”

This father did more for his children by being a friend to their friends than he could with a year’s worth of lectures on friendship. People can tell when we are genuinely interested in them. Likewise, they can tell when our attentions to them are insincere or solicitous. Our own attitude toward our children’s friends can be a very important model of how to treat a friend.

Strengthening and Extending Friendships

Children should be encouraged while in elementary school to pursue some special activity that develops their talents and their character. It is not so important what the activity is, but that it be constructive and that the child wants to do it. That way, it doesn’t become one more thing that the parents have to nag or urge the child to do. Sports of various kinds are now available to both boys and girls. Music, drama, dancing, crafts, nature, and computers are all subjects that have courses, teams, clubs, and programs for young people. Friendships made in pursuit of learning and achieving can be among the most satisfying.

These programs are often inexpensive, even free in many communities, and are superb means of aiding your child in gaining experiences, building confidence, and making friends. This is especially true for children who are shy or uncomfortable with others, because the learning and doing are the primary focus and the associations are more of a side benefit.

Church programs are designed to involve young people for these same reasons and to build their faith in God. If your child needs something that does not happen to be operating in your area, it might be a good idea to talk with others about the need. Many times this is all that is necessary to start something that is good for the entire community.

One ward, for example, had a young man in a wheelchair who went to all the basketball games of his teachers quorum. He cheered them the whole season, at the end of which his father asked the teachers quorum advisor if he would consider a chess tournament so his son could take a more active part with his friends.

Not only did the young men of that ward have a chess tournament, they began what became a stake chess tournament that included the young women and all the Aaronic Priesthood and introduced many young people to each other who otherwise would not have met.

Another father, who saw that his daughter was planning a slumber party with videotaped movies for entertainment, made a daring suggestion. He suggested that they not rent a video at all, but play games, like charades. The daughter had never played the game and was opposed to the idea at first.

Patiently, though, her father showed her how the game worked and what fun he and his friends had had when they played charades. The daughter decided to try it. It was so successful, the father finally had to stop the games at midnight.

Because our children are growing up with the gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives, we hope the Spirit and the principles of the gospel will be an integral part of their friendships. Through frequent conversations and chats with our children as they grow, we can continually nurture in their hearts the Christlike qualities of the true friend: loyalty, trust, courage, compassion, and kindness.

Children who learn these attributes of friendship will draw others to them and influence for good all whom they befriend.

Illustrated by Stephen Moore