For a long time, we have heard that “a child’s first task at school is to learn,” and that “making friends will take up a lot of study time.” But is this really the case?
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University followed 753 students from four states from kindergarten to the age of 25 in a long-term study. They found that children with high social skills, such as cooperation with peers or understanding others’ feelings, are more likely to complete college and find a stable job.
Based on past counseling experience, some psychologists even bluntly stated that “social skills are half of a high schooler’s life.” This is because about half of the problems faced by high school students, such as inattention in class, poor test attitudes, and addiction to games, are caused by the pressure and influence of peer relationships.
Not to mention the increasingly serious issues of campus comparison and bullying, which have become real challenges and impacts that children face every day at school.
However, inside and outside the school walls seem like two different worlds. While children are struggling with peer relationships and campus interpersonal relationships, parents are only concerned about their child’s superficial grades and rankings.
How important is peer relationships? What does a good friendship mean for children? The Outer Bund interviewed Ding Ding, a well-known high school psychology teacher in Beijing.
Social skills are half of a high schooler’s life
“Social skills are half of a high schooler’s life?” In Ding Ding’s view, this seemingly exaggerated statement is not sensational at all.
Because peer relationships not only require the ability to observe, analyze and solve problems but also involve a student’s sense of self-existence, group value recognition, and exploration of life’s meaning, making it the most important lesson in life.
Moreover, the source of teenagers’ self-value recognition is very different from that of children.
Generally speaking, children measure their self-worth based on their parents’ and teachers’ evaluations of them, whereas adolescents begin to place great importance on evaluations from their peers. “It’s not enough for just my parents to say I’m good, I also hope to receive recognition and acceptance from my peers around me.”
Therefore, when high school students reach adolescence, they are more concerned about the impression they leave on their peers. A contemptuous expression or a complaining remark from a classmate or friend can make them restless and emotionally down. Some children even sacrifice their own interests to gain acceptance from their peers.
Many school counselors have discovered that peer relationships among middle school students have become a deep driving force hidden behind academic performance and behavior.
For instance, when students are not paying attention in class, it could be because they are still thinking about something they said or did wrong, worrying about not performing well enough in front of their peers.
Poor exam performance could be due to fears of being surpassed by classmates who are not as academically strong, leading to a loss of social status.
Being addicted to video games could be due to the desire to fit in with friends who have good relationships, even if it means risking academic performance.
As adults, parents tend to overlook the hidden factors behind their children’s behavior, such as the influence of peer relationships.
Today, as societal pressure continues to rise and parental relationships become more strained, the importance of peer relationships is becoming more evident.
Some parents may not understand why their children choose to be friends with kids who they perceive as less talented or even flawed, to the point of breaking ties with their parents.
However, for teenagers, the understanding and empathy of peers are incredibly valuable, sometimes even life-saving.
For instance, a high school girl once confided to her peers about her academic pressure and conflicts with her parents. One of her peers replied, “Dear, don’t be upset. Parents are always like that. They always think they’re right.”
This simple response dissipated the girl’s feelings of loneliness and pain, making her feel understood and comforted by her peers.
Furthermore, children who lack peer relationships face the potential risk of being isolated or bullied. As seen in many domestic and international cases, bullying victims are often those who lack strong peer relationships and assistance.
Every year, there are extreme news reports of children who cannot bear the weight of academic pressure or strained family relationships due to a lack of friends or people to talk to. Without an outlet for their emotions, they can become moody or depressed and may even take drastic measures.
Challenges of Building Relationships among Peers
Friendship is important, but building relationships among peers is no less challenging than academics. Invisible conflicts between students are ubiquitous.
Phyllis Fagell, the author of Middle School Matters, visits dozens of American schools every year and found in his research that “children’s friendship challenges are greater than imagined.”
For example, in sixth grade, only a third of children’s friendships last the entire school year;
If middle school students are asked to name their best friend, only half of the children receive a “good friend” response;
By 12th grade, only 1% of children have a well-established friendship…
On the other hand, the adolescent brain is not fully mature, and they may make impulsive decisions. Changes in hormones can also amplify their emotions. Compared to the rationality and stability of adults, middle school students are indeed more immature in dealing with social problems.
This has made Phyllis Fagell aware of how fragile and unstable friendships are for adolescents. The inevitable social conflicts are affecting children’s academic performance and overall happiness.
He calls for children to learn basic social skills, just as they face academic challenges, which are also critical social abilities.
How can we improve children’s social skills? Ding Ding believes that we should first see deeper internal reasons behind a child’s social challenges.
She once chatted with some students who were deeply lonely and found that these children all had a common characteristic: low self-identity and doubt about their self-worth.
“If a child lacks a basic sense of self-identity, it will directly lead to a lack of confidence in front of classmates, unable to express opinions, and not understanding how to refuse, but instead, compromise and make concessions with others.
These children are often lacking in social charm. Even if they seem to have a good relationship with others, they are not happy inside.”
Ding Ding found that children who are adept at socializing and enjoying intimate peer relationships are often fully developed in intelligence, social skills, emotional development, and morality.
Ding Ding wants to correct a misunderstanding of parents – if my child performs well academically or has their own talents in a particular field, becoming a so-called “top student,” there will not be too many troubles in making friends.
“This is not the case. Even top students face pressure and confusion in peer relationships.”
She reminds us that some parents may not be aware that so-called genius children with innate talents and extraordinary intelligence have a higher risk of interpersonal relationship problems because they lack a common language with peers and are even isolated by them.
On the other hand, many top students are developed through excessive tutoring. They spend too much time and energy on problem-solving during primary and middle school. The result of excessive development is that the time that should have been used for developing emotional management skills, exercising social skills, and cultivating self-awareness has all been used for problem-solving.
Excessive emphasis on competition is damaging healthy peer relationships
A 75-year-long tracking study conducted by Harvard University shows that friendship is a secret to a happy life. When children have friends in school, it makes them more excited about going to school than learning itself.
However, in today’s education system, the value of “success above all” is sweeping through campuses, often excluding friendship.
Currently, an overemphasis on peer competition is actually detrimental to establishing a friendly and cooperative peer relationship. Ding Ding, a renowned education expert, warns that if each child’s sense of self-worth comes from outperforming their classmates in external motivators such as scores and rankings, this will create a very fragile and illusory sense of self-identity.
This phenomenon is particularly evident during the annual college entrance exams in China. Many schools’ mobilization banners are filled with a kind of fanaticism to “win,” such as “score one point more and kill others.”
In this kind of school environment, children constantly have an “imaginary enemy” in their minds. From classroom performance to extracurricular activities and even exam results, they secretly compete to surpass others, but they cannot cheer for others’ success.
However, Ding Ding believes that this does not mean that there should be no competition in the school environment. The key is whether it is a benign competition.
What is benign competition? It can stimulate a child’s potential, encourage them to constantly strive for self-improvement, sincerely congratulate others on their achievements, and objectively see their own strengths.
For example, more and more collaborative learning and project-based learning provide students with a benign competitive environment. Team members work together to contribute their own strengths. Competition between different groups is often a showcase of diverse talents.
Similarly, classroom discussion-based learning can also allow students to think about the validity of others’ ideas from different perspectives and try to express their own views in a way that others can easily accept, thereby improving their deep cooperation skills.
Ding Ding, an education expert, stresses the importance of allowing each child to find their own value in a team and getting closer to a real social environment through cooperation and winning competitions.
According to Ding Ding, in order to create a better atmosphere for interpersonal communication, not only schools but also teachers should focus on designing learning tasks and regulating their own words and deeds.
The public evaluation and feedback from teachers not only affect students’ self-evaluation, but also their peers’ opinions of each other, which is very delicate.
For example, some teachers may unconsciously express their admiration and care for certain children in and out of class, criticize and disappoint certain children, and even intentionally or unintentionally label students. These behaviors will create peer pressure in communication.
If a teacher publicly praises a child for being smart, it may make other children feel inferior. For the child who is praised, it may not necessarily be a good thing either. This may exaggerate his personal abilities and make him develop an arrogant attitude, which is not conducive to cooperation with other children.
Therefore, in modern education, teachers must consider how to maintain the sense of integration of the entire group while teaching students according to their aptitude.
As adults, especially when dealing with teenagers, our hearts are very sensitive. We need to be very careful with our words.
In contrast, Ding Ding prefers an educational approach of “focusing on the issue, not the person” in public settings.
When a student makes a mistake, it is better to point out the wrong behavior rather than call out the student’s name. When communicating with students privately, the focus should also be on finding solutions for inappropriate behavior rather than blaming the individual.
Building Strong Self-Esteem in Children: A Key to Better Relationships with Peers
Ding Ding believes that the key to improving a child’s relationships with peers is to start with the fundamental psychological mechanism of building their self-identity and self-worth. This will give a child the confidence to make friends.
Why do some children have low self-identity and self-worth? “We often find that this can be traced back to early family relationships.”
During a child’s formative years, they develop their values and perspectives on interpersonal relationships by observing the actions and behaviors of their family members. If family members frequently blame each other and cannot accept a child’s failures and mistakes, the child may develop a sense of mistrust and a negative view of life.
Once a negative view of life is formed, it will inevitably be reflected in a child’s academic performance. They may feel that life has no meaning, that effort is not worthwhile, and that they are not worthy of love and respect.
As children move into adolescence, the influence of family relationships gradually gives way to peer relationships. “This does not mean that parent-child relationships are unimportant, but rather that their interaction patterns have solidified and children begin to seek feedback from the peer world.”
This is why many parents find their children challenging during adolescence. Ding Ding reminds us that many rebellious teenagers are not the result of the tumultuous teenage years, but rather a pre-existing problem in parent-child relationships that has not been exposed. In the past, these children may have pretended to be obedient due to authority pressure. But as they enter their teenage years, their self-will awakens and they no longer conceal their true selves, which naturally exacerbates the hidden conflicts between parent and child.
Adolescents who have good learning habits, strong self-discipline, and internal motivation generally do not have “teenage problems.” This is also due to their family’s communication and interaction patterns that allow for equal, respectful, and rational problem-solving.
When a child does not feel accepted or respected in their home environment, they will crave acceptance from their peers and can easily be influenced by their values, even falling in with negative peer groups.
Children who have troubled family relationships or problematic parent-child interaction patterns may develop an extreme aversion to social interaction and intimate relationships, leading to an isolated personality.
These underlying issues stem from a strong sense of insecurity.
Furthermore, it is important to teach children essential social skills, such as conflict resolution, taking responsibility for their actions, choosing appropriate friends, setting appropriate boundaries for friendships, and knowing when to forgive and let go.
As Phyllis Fagell, author of “Middle School Matters,” suggests, when teaching a child how to parallel park, you might give very specific instructions like “turn the steering wheel to the left, keep going, now turn hard to the right.”
However, when it comes to helping children with socializing and making friends, we may only offer general advice like “treat others the way you want to be treated” or “be a good person.” This vague guidance is clearly inadequate.
For middle school students, relationships mean everything, but we still have much to learn about teaching them how to navigate peer interactions.