“Be friends with everyone”.
I don’t know how many times I’ve given my two daughters this advice. And it’s not just me. I’ve heard many other parents say this same phrase, it comes right out of the Good Parents’ Manual.
We say it because we have a genuine desire to raise good human beings. We don’t want our kids to be deliberately cruel and hurtful.
And, if I’m really honest, my “be friends with everyone” advice also comes from a place of fear. No doubt influenced by my own schoolyard baggage, I essentially treated friendship like a numbers game: the more mates you have the less likely you are to end up being a Nigel No Friends.
But it turns out that this isn’t such good advice after all. Far from protecting my girls from pain, this advice may actually cause it.
Friendship skills expert and founder of URSTRONG Dana Kerford doesn’t mince words when she says that telling kids to be friends with everyone is a very bad idea.
“If parents are telling kids to be friends with everyone they are giving dangerous advice because not everyone is good for us,” says Kerford. “Some people bring out the best in us and some people bring out the worst, and children should not have to be friends with people who are not good for them.”
If you’re not convinced, Kerford encourages parents to think about the consequences of the “Be friends with everyone” advice for their child later in life.
“What does that advice mean in romantic relationships? That’s not when we want our kids learning the importance of being selective for the very first time”.
This isn’t to say that we should raise our children to be anti-social and exclusionary. We can still encourage our children to be kind and respectful of everyone, without telling them they must be friends with them all.
This is the same social standard that applies to adults. We don’t expect adults to be friends with everyone. While you probably endeavour to be polite and respectful to all your colleagues (mostly), you don’t feel compelled to share your secrets and your toys with every single one of them.
Nobody is telling you you have to invite that irritating person in the next cubicle who never shuts up to your birthday party.
“The message we want to give our kids is choose wisely,” says Kerford. “What’s so special about friendship is that it’s a relationship that we choose”.
Rather than focusing on the quantity of friends, we should be teaching our kids about the importance of quality friends.
“Quality relationships are based in trust and respect and we feel good when we’re with that person. We feel like we can be ourselves, we have fun. And that isn’t everybody, we don’t have that connection with everyone and that’s okay,” Kerford says.
The desire to be friends with everyone can force children into a situation where they try to “fit in” rather than “belong”.
As social scientist and author Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
But in order for people to “belong” they have to be prepared not to “fit in”.
“[M]en and women who have the deepest sense of true belonging are people who also have the courage to stand alone when called to do that. They are willing to maintain their integrity and risk disconnection in order to stand up for what they believe in,” Brown said.
To put that in kid-speak: Only give your friendship to someone who likes you the way you are and you like them way they are.