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It takes a virus to inspire us.

Part 1: Friendship

COVID-19 has reminded us all that we live in a connected world. By the very nature of its person to person transition, the virus is challenging the view that we’ve retreated into digital bubbles at the expense of ‘real world’ contacts. And conversely, it’s boosted the huge and empowering technologies that enable us to have those digital connections. Families across generations have found solace by staying in touch via Zoom, GoogleMeet, Teams and the like. If nothing else, the suspension of daily ‘busyness’ in our lives has focused on how much our time with loved ones, friends and colleagues really matters.

Unsurprising then that initial research into what children are missing in the absence of school shows the number one item to be ‘friends’. Whilst we fuss and fret about how much curriculum time is being ‘lost’ and how we can organise online lessons, and now ‘catch up’ courses, we’re failing to focus on what the virus has taken away from our children most dramatically of all: peer to peer socialisation. 

Children are inherently social beings. Anyone with a baby will have observed how, from a remarkably early age, their attention is drawn to the voices, the movements, of other children. Likewise, anyone who has taken a young child into a crowded space will have seen how quickly they identify another small person, make eye contact and often venture an approach, however sidling, even without an adult’s prompting. That’s no surprise, since throughout our evolutionary history, the ability to make friends has been a crucial survival skill. Whilst there is no simple formula for friendship and it’s clear that people thrive socially in different ways, it’s also known that building connections and friendships can mitigate isolation and feelings of loneliness. As Leon Neyfakh from The Boston Globe observes, adults who developed friendship skills, ‘were more likely to have healthy relationships with family and to have a positive outlook on their lives, and less likely to suffer from depression’. It’s also been suggested that people with less social connection may have weaker immune systems and overall physical health.

Today, we repeatedly espouse the recalibration of educational objectives and describe the so-called soft or 21st century skills that our future workforce will require; the flexibility, the ability to listen, to communicate and to collaborate, as well as to make independent contributions, to question, to hypothesise and to create. These are identical to the fundamentals of friendship. Yet, in today’s neurotic, results-driven environment, we have been slow to recognise that socialisation is what schools are great at facilitating. It’s possibly their most important function. Teachers are experts in the world of connection and are highly skilled in managing childhood relationships. We don’t give them enough credit for this; nor do we consider it a skill worth measuring or fostering as an educational priority. 

Decades of research suggest that adults can play a significant role in guiding children to make friends. Encouraging innate sociability should be a focus for parents and educators alike, not only with regard to individual wellbeing, but also for the general social good. For a connected world, where ‘traditional’ employment is shrinking, it’s critical that human beings cultivate and use their social powers. This is our head start on the ‘developing workforce’ of robots. From the earliest age, the benefits of being ‘prosocial’ – caring, sharing and helpful, as well as knowing how to keep selfish or aggressive impulses in check – are the hugely important first steps towards important interpersonal skills: empathy, perspective-taking, and moral reasoning. 

Parents and teachers alike all need to become conscious coaches of these skills and to reflect on personal behaviours. We can start by establishing a framework with some simple ‘rules of engagement’. Most people are guilty of negative or selfish emotions that they mostly strive to control. Children need to learn to recognise these forces within themselves with the support of adults who are sympathetic and who encourage a problem-solving approach. Ignoring, or worse, trivialising these emotions does not help to build the tools that everyone needs, including children, to keep them in check. More than half a century ago the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, wrote an influential book, where he argued for the importance of ‘chumships’ in activating children’s sense of empathy. He wrote, ‘when he finally finds a chum—somewhere between 8-and-a-half and ten, you will discover … that a child [is beginning] to develop a real sensitivity to what matters to another person.’ Again, it’s no surprise that encouraging discussion about emotions, including conflicts, seems to boost social skills and help children to make friends. 

Kindness is an important ingredient of friendship formation and in itself tends to elicit a reciprocal response. It can be one of the best ways to begin a friendship. Likewise, expressing openness casts wide the metaphorical door to friendship. Of course it doesn’t guarantee that anyone will walk through that door. So to increase the odds that a friendship will grow, children need to extend their friendship invitations to others who are most likely to respond. In their book, Children’s Friendship Training, Fred Frankel and Robert Myatt (UCLA Semel Institute) describe a process of learning to ‘make conversation’. This includes ‘trading’ information’ such as ‘likes and dislikes’, offering information about yourself and inviting your new friend(s) to reciprocate. The aim is not to be either a conversation dominator or even an interrogator. The goal is to foster curiosity and empathy. Ideally it can lead to some kind of collaborative activity, shared challenge or problem to solve. 

With a light, but carefully attentive touch, we can monitor children’s burgeoning social life, whilst keeping a look out for negative behaviors. We can also try to help children cope with what might be described as tricky social situations, such as how to join in with a communal activity when you’re the ‘new’ one, or how to avoid being critical or disruptive, which most likely leads to rejection. In other words, to use simple strategies that enable children to start making positive connections and build a network of friends. 

Bullying (both ways – for those on the receiving end and those doling it out) isn’t a healthy part of childhood and experts agree that here’s where adults need to get involved. But with this important exception, wherever possible it’s generally recommended to provide children with clear rules or concrete frameworks (we’re talking here of those aged 6+), then let them work things out for themselves, to build social experience. We should also be aware, as friendship researchers generally argue, that by focusing on preventing things from going wrong, we risk losing sight of what healthy peer relations actually look like and what vital social building blocks they may be.

Of course, digital worlds are now significant arenas for social interaction and these require a special kind of structure and supervision. School aged children today are ‘generation social media’. Online networks and communities are part of the social fabric they witness and increasingly engage with. Learning the rules to make positive connections with online friends is imperative, as well as avoiding the pitfalls. By way of introduction to this friendship ‘pool’, it’s not enough to let children dabble in adult social platforms, which many do despite clear age restrictions. Children under the age of 12 years need their own rules-based and moderated, safe spaces where they can expand their connections and experience the thrill of getting to know someone new, someone who can expand their world view. 

Because, when it comes to cultural differences, there’s much for children to learn if they are to thrive in a global context. Here’s where our ability to hone our social skills with nuances becomes critical – a skill that remains difficult to hand over to machines. Apart from discovering ‘time zones’ and how children in different countries experience daily life, or that what we have in common is often greater than where we differ, it’s also important to understand that people in different cultures may interpret behaviors differently. For example, suppose your friend failed a math test, whereas you did extremely well, should you announce your success to your friend? In a cross-cultural study, American school children agreed that doing so would seem like boasting. But Chinese children viewed the matter differently. To them, sharing information about success with an unsuccessful friend would send the message: ‘I can help you do better.’ 

Knowing these subtleties, or at least training yourself to be open to them, is setting yourself up for wider social success. As the post-pandemic world is unfolding and our ever more connected future evolves, we can choose to retreat into familiar circles or reach beyond physical and social boundaries to grasp and enjoy a wealth of different opportunities. In bygone times, this applied principally to the privileged minority who travelled and even relocated for work. Thanks to technology, our ability to widen our community is becoming ever easier. The skills we develop to become successful global citizens are grounded in our understanding and practice of friendship. 

It might well be that the arrival of the virus has just delivered us a valuable key to help us transform our educational priorities and address the changing demands for future employability. Let’s start by acknowledging the value of friendship and the routes to building connections successfully and internationally. And let’s do it for every child.