I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about popularity--and why it matters less than it once did. It sparked some interesting discussion worth following up on. The quality of friendships matters more than the quantity of friends, I wrote then. Today, let's talk about what matters most in choosing friends. And parents, listen up: This matters as much to you as it does your kids.

My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Catherine Bagwell, and I spent two years writing our book, Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence.  The overarching question we encountered: What is the significance of friendship? We learned it is one of those questions to which everyone immediately answers, "there is a lot of significance in friendship," but answering with substance takes more effort (as our editor pointed out).

So what is the significance in friendship? And how can you both choose good friends and be one yourself? That, my friends and readers, is what we're discussing today.
First, the researcher in me wants to share these three quantifiable facts about friendship.
  1. How children form their earliest relationships with you, their parent, is linked to how they form their friendships.
  2. Children's friendships form early, maybe even as early as the toddler years, so it's never too early to encourage them to make a friend.
  3. Friends serve as a "testing ground" for kids to figure out their world (and, unless caught doing something especially unruly, they don't get in trouble for it!)
As I well know, research can tell us about friendship, or we can look all around us for signs of good friendship. Here are some unquantifiable verities about friendship, as gathered from pop culture.    

Friendship means we are free to be ourselves.
A few years ago, I was thrilled to rediscover my favorite childhood album: Marlo Thomas' Free to Be You and MeI hadn't thought of it for decades, but when I saw it, I could feel the excitement rush through me.  One of the songs on the album, Glad to Have a Friend Like You.  The chorus refers to a friend being "fair and fun and skippin' free" and friends allowing one another to "just be me."  The song continues with themes of sharing secrets, accepting each other fully, and enjoying favorite things together.  Although it took me a 500 page manuscript, Marlo Thomas endearingly captured the significance of friendship in one song.  If you want to remember the carefree childhood friendships that you shared, download the song!

Friendship means companionship and security.
Winnie the Pooh and Piglet demonstrate for children and adults alike that there is something unique and special in friendships.  Pooh said to Piglet, "If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you."  Clearly, they successfully found companionship, security, trust, closeness, enjoyment, and reciprocity in their friendship.  It may just be true that the most important life lessons are learned when we are young, and sometimes relearned when we have our own children!

Friendship means being there for someone when times get rough.
The Beatles famous song, With a Little Help from My Friends, was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and represents a conversation about friendship.  How far would you go for a friend?  "What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?" In other words, true friends should be there even when you're off tune!

There is no shortage of research, anecdotes, songs, books, and movies that remind us that we get by with a little help from our friends. 

So, in closing, "remember…no man is a failure who has friends" (It's a Wonderful Life) and "only a true friend would be…truly honest" (Shrek).  And if that isn't enough, just know that "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12" (Stand by Me).  Finally, remember, "It's an insane world but in it there is one sanity, the loyalty of old friends" (Ben-Hur). 

The earlier our kids learn the value and preciousness of high quality friendships, the better off they will be! 

The professor's homework for this week: When you have a quiet moment with your child, have a conversation about friendship.  Take time to listen carefully because some of the answers might surprise you!  And in two weeks, we can come back here and reflect on everyone's views on the meaning of friendship.

How do you define a friend?  What qualities do you look for?  How did you make the friendships that you have now?  How has this changed over the course of your life?  Have you learned anything about friendship from your children?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt
is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children's lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.