Social “Engineering” — How Far is Too Far?

LB: This is one of those tres touchy subjects. I actually have been thinking about doing a series on this very topic. I then received this piece, and thought WOW, this Mom has it down. My advice: FRAME THIS!

Anonymous, Mom of 2 kids

A birthday invitation comes in the mail, a boy from my son’s third grade classroom, so I ask my son, “Do you want to go to Jon’s birthday party?”

“Yes!” he says, which truly surprises me. This is a name not only have I not heard all year, but also he was with my son last year, and I didn’t hear about him then either.

So I say, “Are you friends with Jon?”

“Yes! I really like him. Can I have a play date with him?”

I had to stifle my natural reaction of, “But that kid is so nerdy.” And don’t be horrified, I didn’t say that. I said, “Great!” and then asked what he liked about him. He told me this kid is so funny and smart, and he likes talking to him.

The truth is that while it seems messed up to want your kid to play with the cool kids and not the ones that might not appeal to us, it’s actually very natural to want to engineer our kids’ social lives. Since they were born, we have seen our children as an extension of ourselves… not minding their puke, because it’s like our own…feeling their pain, as if we are the ones with the fevers and the broken arms. Their bruises are ours. And when they are hurt by their peers, when they are left out, it’s our pain too. And when they have success, we take it is as ours… their A’s are the result of our pushing. Their successful slide into home is from our encouragement.

Why is it not the same thing when it comes to social choices and social success?

In my nine years as a parent, especially in the last three, I have seen some horrifying examples of what I call, “social engineering.”  One particularly obvious example was my friend Rhonda. When her daughter was in first grade she started to slowly and very expertly guide her daughter to be one of the most sought-after girls in the whole grade. She eyed who the cool girls were, was relentless in making plans with them, signing up for classes with them and eventually wearing their moms down to carpool with her. This mom would see what these cool girls were wearing, and I kid you not, she would go and buy the items for her daughter that very night. I even heard other moms complain that this mom blew off their daughters’ plans for a “better” invitation. Rhonda would push for family plans with popular girls’ families and then pulled away from all of her old friends she had made when her daughter was a baby. She finally stopped calling me because I wasn’t of any use for her to get ahead in her social agenda.

I’ve seen it amongst the boy moms too. My friend Liz whose son is a very well-liked and talented boy told me that she would field calls of other moms whose sons her son barely knew asking for play dates. And at times her son would say, “Mom, I’m not friends with that boy; please don’t make these plans,” so she would politely use the super-busy excuse. They would follow by emailing several dates to her months out to ensure getting on this boy’s calendar. And then there was the indignant mom whose son wasn’t included in a small group of boys trick-or-treating and the Facebook rant of a mom annoyed that her son wasn’t invited to a well-liked kid’s birthday party.

What are we communicating to our children when we engineer our children’s lives like this? How are they going to be confident and authentic teens when we say things like, “Well, why don’t you go play football with all those sporty boys instead of playing tag with your best friend. Or, “All the girls are wearing those shoes, so that’s what you should get.” Or the worst, “Why do you want to play with HER?”

If we really want what is best for our children, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is popularity it? Is being friends with the coolest kids in school going to be the best thing for my child, even if it means compromising who he/she really is?’ Even if it means being with kids who don’t want my kid there? Am I doing this for my kid, or for ME?

My friend Laura called me in tears at the beginning of the year telling me that her daughter was coming home crying because her friend Terri was being mean to her at lunch and recess, not letting her sit where she wanted, not letting her play at recess.

“What do I do?” she asked me. “Should I call the mean girl’s mom?”

I told her, you need to tell your daughter that this girl Terri is NOT her friend. She needs to learn NOW that people who are mean to her are not her friends. Tell her to go find one of her real friends and sit by her. Or, maybe she could try making a new friend in her class, one who actually wants her around. Isn’t it better for her to learn this lesson at eight, rather than at 20, when a guy she likes treats her like crap?

When our kids are in these elementary grades, we have a lot of control over their social lives. We are the ones making the calls and the plans. Why not use our social engineering instincts to make plans with the friends of our children who respect our kid, who bring out the best in them?

Why not view social success as not being ‘cool’ or ‘popular’ — rather having REAL friends?

I like to point out to my son that there are “buddies” and then there are “friends.” A buddy is a kid you play with sometimes, one that you have fun with. A friend is someone to whom you can say, “I don’t feel well, can you help me get to the nurse?” or “Joe’s being mean to me, could you come with me to go play something else?” And then we can in turn teach them how to be a good friend by supporting their friends’ successes, going to their games or recitals, not talking about them behind their backs.

In a few years these same children are going to be making their own plans. How do we want them to decide with whom to spend their time? This is what we need to consider when we help them make their friends. Popularity should never be a goal that a parent conveys to her child, but quality friendships, authentic friendships should be the goal — unlike popularity, they are a life-long gift.

LB: All I can say here is KUDOs, Girlfriend. What are YOUR thoughts?

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