In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of ­mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they ­incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.
— Aristotle

In the Garden of Beasts

Wendy Jaffe

We teach our kids a lot of things that seem indispensable to living a good life. Look both ways before you cross the street. Wear sunscreen daily. Don’t drink Coca-Cola for breakfast. Yet almost none of us teach our children how to do the single thing that will have a bigger impact on their lives and long-term happiness than anything else: developing solid friendships with good people.

Now before you get defensive, citing examples of the time you warned little Joey to stay away from toy-stealing Tommy, the preschool bully, and urged high school Haley to avoid slutty Sally, who routinely showed up for first period smelling like a Grateful Dead concert, I need to make one thing clear. I’m not talking about teaching our kids how to avoid bad kids — most of us do that already — I’m talking about teaching our kids to spot the good kids, and invest in those relationships.

Since it is already difficult enough to get our kids to complete the standard 2012 Kid Resume (sports, good grades, healthy eating, community service, musical instrument), why should we add “friendship skills” to the already long checklist? The answer is that having solid friendships is a bigger determinant of not only happiness, but of success, than any other factor in life.

“The causes of modern social problems, from divorce to homelessness and obesity, are often thought to be based in areas such as poverty, stress or unhappiness. But researchers suggest we are overlooking something crucial: friendship,” notes Jane Collingwood in her article “The Importance of Friendship” published on Psychcentral.com. She goes on to discuss the work of Tom Rath, director of the Gallop Organization and author of “Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without.”

Rath used his knowledge gleaned from years of polling and undertook a massive study of friendship, alongside several leading researchers. His work resulted in some surprising statistics. For example, “if your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself. Married people say friendship is more than five times as important as physical intimacy within marriage. Those who say they have no real friends at work have only a one in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their job. Conversely, if you have a ‘best friend at work,’ you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job.”

While that research seemed to surprise the investigators, none of this came as a surprise to me. I am really good at just three things, and fortunately one of those things is being an excellent friend picker. And I hang on to those friends for dear life once I have found them. Though I have made more parenting mistakes than I can count, continuously emphasizing the importance of friendships to my children was not one of them.

Of course, simply telling your children to be a good friend (or telling your children to do anything for that matter) is not enough. First, you have to walk the talk. In other words, you have to demonstrate how to be a great friend by the power of your example. Let them know when you go out of your way to be a good friend.

“Joey, my friend just started a new business so I’m trying to connect her with people who can help her get that business off the ground.” Or, “Hayley, today I took my friend out to lunch because she is going through a challenging time and really needed someone to listen.” I witnessed my mother spend a lifetime investing in her relationships, and no doubt the power of her example made a big impact on me. Trickle-down economics may or may not work; trickle-down friendship-building techniques definitely do.

Second, you need to support your child’s attempts to be a good friend even when that means spending more money than you would like, driving farther than is convenient or sacrificing a precious hour on a homework-packed night. Here are a few real-life examples.

Daughter (paraphrased): “I know I have a test tomorrow that may determine my academic future, but Lisa is crying because her boyfriend just sent her a text that he likes someone else and she needs to talk.”

Response: Bite “no” tongue and say “yes.”

Son (paraphrased): “Megan hurt her leg. Can you take me to the store so that I can buy brownie mix and then drive me 20 minutes to her house, wait 15 minutes, and then drive back 20 minutes? To convince you, I will promise that I will study for tomorrow’s test in the car, but we both know that won’t actually happen. So will you take me?”

Response: Bite “no” tongue and say “yes.”

Now that several years of indoctrinating my children about the importance of friendship have passed, what have I got to show for it? A tongue with many bite marks, and kids who have the most fantastic friends a mother could ask for.

Oh, and there’s one more really important thing: the comfort of knowing that although there will come a time when my children will be without me, there will never be a time when they are without a good friend by their side.


Wendy Jaffe can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.