British Columbia·Parental Guidance

Friendships are an important part of childhood, but should parents play a role?

Friendship is an important part of a child's life, and it can be both heartwarming and heartbreaking. But it also provides lessons that parents need to stay out of.

When do kids need a hand with their friends, and when should parents take a hands-off approach?

Cinnamon Bhayani and her daughter Seraphina have learned how to navigate friendships together. (Submitted by Cinnamon Bhayani)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

Aside from keeping snacks stocked and being the occasional chauffeur, I try not to meddle in my children's friendships.

I'm lucky — both my kids have friends I adore and consider family.

But over the years, they've also had friends who have brought them to tears, or brought out the worst in them, and that's a hard thing to see.

Not everyone has to be friends

Friendship can be a difficult dance for adults. There are people you choose to connect with on a deeper level, and sometimes those same people can disagree or hurt you. So why do we expect it to be different for children?

For Cinnamon Bhayani, a mother of two, there was a complete 180-degree turn in her parenting perspective when her daughter, Seraphina, now 12, was in preschool. 

"There was a very eager student at the school that wanted to be friends with Seraphina and some other girls, but they weren't really keen," said Bhayani.

"I was taken aback , like, 'you have to be friends with everyone!' And the teacher explained that they were teaching kids the right to choose your friends. 

"And you know what? When you're an adult you choose which friendships you want to continue and you choose which friendship are toxic in a way."

Despite how angry she might be on her children's behalf if someone has upset them, Bhayani knows she needs not only to listen and validate what they've experienced, but also to respect how much or little they want her to be involved. 

"That happened and that was real. So let's look at your options, how involved do you want me to be? So the first thing is to get consent from your child. It's almost like developing a life skill. And I think she knows I'm not going to go storming into the school."

Storming the school might not be best, but it's hard to stand by if you know a friend is the source of pain for your kid. How do parents keep some distance?

Let kids navigate friendships without you

For some parents, especially if they were bullied when they were younger or had a difficult time making friends, it can be hard not to let those experiences inform their parenting.

But being open about your experiences can help kids realize what they are going through is normal. 

For Adam MacGillivray and his wife, that means teaching their six-year-old to remove himself from situations where he's made to feel bad, and seek out friends who support him. It also means leaving him to his own devices as much as possible. 

"When you are constantly supervising every little aspect of it, then any perceived or real slight comes back to [where] they're reporting to you and wanting your opinion on what it is, as opposed to learning how to figure it out," said MacGillivray.

"If there's an emergency, I'm right here. Go off and have fun and figure it out until you can't."

MacGillivray also doesn't express his feelings if his son's friends aren't who he would necessarily choose himself.

Instead, he encourages open discussion about how a friend's behaviour makes his child feel, and if they are comfortable with their actions and words.

Friendships will come and go

But friendships are fluid and will change over time. And while it is heartbreaking to see your child alone, it's likely they've also been the one to decide not to maintain a friendship, and caused heartbreak in another kid. 

William Bukowski, a professor and early adolescent development research chair at Concordia University, has done extensive research to understand how and why children's and adolescents' experiences with their peers affect competence and well-being.

Bukowski and his colleagues met with a group of elementary school children six times over a space of 15 years, looking to find out more about kids who always had friends and and those who never had friends. But it wasn't that clear-cut. 

"We could not find a single child who had a mutual friend — some who they liked who liked them in return — at each of the six times," said Bukowski.

"Also we could not find anybody who was unfriended at every time. Friendships fluctuate, they go up and down. It's not unusual for a child to be friendless. I'm not saying it a positive experience, but it's not unusual."

The skills you learn from childhood friendships — both good and bad — can impact your life well into adulthood. And we have to let our kids fully experience those valuable lessons.

Of course, there are times when parents can lend a helping hand. Kids can have a difficult time making connections, and there is nothing wrong with introducing your children to like-minded kids, or speaking to other parents or teachers if a dangerous or abusive situation occurs.

But like a good friend, sometimes the best thing you can do is just be there when they need you, and be understanding when they don't.


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.