October 1, 2013

Kids and Friends: Who Gets to Choose?

I sent my daughter to UTS so she would hang out with smart kids and not do drugs, drink or have sex. I sent my son to Upper Canada College so he would be influenced towards better work habits and the pursuit of excellence.

My daughter managed the trifecta (and then some) and my son came straight home from school every day and hung out with his old friends from the neighbourhood. For my (then) 20 something thousand dollars a year, he wrote some papers for his neighbourhood friends because, as he said, he was getting a much better education than they were.

I desperately wanted to edit both my kids’ friend lists, and sending them to snazzy private schools was a big part of the plan for that. The idea was that they would bond with the people they spent their days with, which seemed a realistic enough expectation.

How wrong I was to expect that, and now I see why.

The primary reason has to do with power and control. These are the two things that every adolescent wants most. When they whine: “I’m not a baby any more but you keep treating me like one,” we need to decode that complaint rather than reacting, to look under the whine and find the meat of the matter – which is that adolescents’ prime directive, their great biologically programmed drive, is to individuate and separate from their parents, to seize their independence and become autonomous from us.

We know that they do this clumsily, in fits and starts. It’s hard to parent someone who oscillates wildly between babyish and mature. They’re unpredictable about everything – except their friendships. This they do with one goal in mind: Power and control. Friends are everything to adolescents, because they are in the process of becoming themselves, of figuring out who they are, and a friend is for reflecting back at you who you are.

These private school kids choose to maintain their old neighbourhood friendships firstly for acutely practical reasons: They have no wheels. If they hang out with their school friends, who do not necessarily live nearby, they need help from mom and dad (in the form of rides to and fro). Neighbourhood friends can be accessed independently on foot or bike, which takes parents out of the equation. This gives them more power and control, and we know they want that.

It also allows them to set the social agenda and do some age-appropriate rebelling. Our kids aren’t stupid. They know we want them to connect with these “good” kids at the good school. What a neat trick, what an effective way to seize control, by staying loyal to the neighbourhood friends. Which also allows them to engage in behaviours that we prohibit. Flying under the parental radar is significantly easier when you get around on your own.

The other reason why our private school adolescents stay with their neighbourhood  friends has to do with that developmental imperative of figuring out who they are. That process, their anxiety about becoming somebody and the inevitable fears about being invisible or uncool or ugly – all combine to make adolescents pretty fearful creatures. Look at sheep in a field hurrying to herd, and you see adolescent behaviour. If that were you (and it was) would you make a whole bunch of new friends or stick with the ones you know? And given that friends are a mirror in whose reflection they see and define themselves, do they want an unfamiliar mirror?

At a time of life when everything else is changing and the hormones are raging, is it any wonder that a neighbourhood gang is a beacon of safety and security?

It's sometimes hard for parents to accept the friends our kids choose

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