When Dr. Michael Thompson asks sixth graders if their parents asked about them their friends in the past few days, 98 percent raise their hands. Just a generation or two ago, fewer parents, if any, would have asked that question on a regular basis.
“This is a very anxious generation of parents,” said Thompson, a psychologist, author, lecturer and consultant who specializes in children and families. Parents today don't see their kids out playing in the neighborhood, and aren't watching their interaction with other children. Thus they often feel the need to constantly check in, he said in a telephone interview last week.
On Jan. 28, Thompson will speak at Monomoy Regional High School about “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Community, Friendship, Social Power and Bullying in Childhood and Adolescence.” In his talk, he'll reassure parents that most kids are perfectly capable of running their own social lives, even in this day of heightened concern over bullying and other abuse. Only a small number of children – about 15 percent – suffer from social disorders, depression or other anxieties that prevent them from making friends.
All parents naturally want to protect their child, Thompson said. With understanding today about the lifelong trauma caused by sexual abuse and bullying, parents seek to protect their children from such experiences. Thompson referred to William Damon, a Stamford professor, who has said children today based on trauma theory, whereas in reality, things like bullying and sexual abuse of children are on the decline, thanks to years of anti-bullying training and campaigns as well as heightened awareness.
“All school systems do a very responsible job of teaching kids that bullying is traumatic,” he said. In fact, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, has said this may be the safest time to be a child. But often what parents see on television leads them to believe the opposite and prompts them to check on their children's social life often.
That's fine up until about the third grade, Thompson said. But by middle school, “kids do not want their parents checking all the time.” There's a developmental reason for that, he said, including the need for respect from peers. “After third grade kids require other kids to run their own social lives and not be tattletales.” Thompson has spoken in more than 700 schools all around the world, and that's something he's seen everywhere. “They all get the same memo,” he said.”
That doesn't mean that parents shouldn't check in with their kids, but they should just listen and help kids develop resilience and strategies if they are experiencing problems.
“Too many moms who feel they're really, really helping, what they're doing is getting a story of victimhood from the child,” he said.
While technology has changed many things about everyday life and growing up, Thompson said it has “not changed the fundamental pursuit of friendship, which is what kids are about.” Technology and the internet can, however, make parents feel helpless and out of touch. “This is how [kids] conduct their social lives. It feels out of their reach.”
Cyberbullying is a major concern, but kids are just as likely to either make or maintain lasting friendships online. After his son went to summer camp, Thompson said, friends he made there and remained in touch with online helped him through some difficult periods.
“The internet is a two-edged sword when it comes to the social lives of children,” he said.
Thompson, who lives in Arlington and is supervising psychologist for the Belmont Hill School in Belmont, describes himself as an “optimistic and realistic” speaker. “I'm not a Calamity Jane,” he said. With a steady diet of negativity from TV and the internet that makes them anxious, parents need to hear that the vast majority of kids are perfectly capable of regulating their own social lives and making friends, he said.
Some of the questions addressed in the talk include what do social relationships in school predict about happiness in adult life; what is the normal sequence of child friendships, from parallel play to the self-disclosure of adolescents; why do cliques form and what are the differences between boy and girl groups; why are children scapegoated and how can their parents and school protect them; and what are the differences between friendship and popularity. While all children yearn for popularity, he said, friendship helps children survive and thrive.
Thompson is the author on nine books on the emotional lives of boys, friendships and social cruelty in childhood, the impact of summer camp experiences on child development, the tensions that arise in the parent-teacher relationships, and psychological aspects of school leadership. He has been a clinical psychologist, school consultant and international speaker on the subjects of children, schools and parenting for 35 years and has appeared on numerous programs such as 60 Minutes and the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is donating his time to the Jan. 28 event, which is a benefit for the Chatham Community Playground at Chatham Elementary School. The talk begins at 6 p.m., and tickets, at $20, can be purchased at the door or online here.
Dr. Michael Thompson
Talk on “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Community, Friendship, Social Power and Bullying in Childhood and Adolescence.”
Jan. 28, 6 p.m.
Monomoy Regional High School
Oak Street, Harwich
Tickets: $20, at the door or online here.