My 9-year-old son loves playing video games at his friends' houses, but we don't have them in our home. He now says he needs to have these games in order to host playdates here. How much should we keep up with what other families have to benefit our son's social life? My son plays a musical instrument, builds Legos, reads, and listens to music happily in his free time, so I don't feel that we need video games, however, I do sympathize with his wanting to impress friends.
—Can't Keep Up
Dear Can't Keep Up,
I haven't yet met a parent of a school-aged child who hasn't heard, usually in the form of whining, "Everyone else's parents let them!" My own children have informed me that everyone else has candy in their lunches on the daily, and we are, in fact, the strictest parents ever for insisting they eat sandwiches and fruit. Of course, I know this is not true, but nevertheless, they're persuasive.
It's so easy to raise our children in the carefully curated environment we want for them ... until they have to do things like go to school and make friends. This is part of our own growing pains as parents—balancing what we want for our kids socially (who doesn't want their child to feel accepted?) while also preserving our values in the home and family we have so thoughtfully created during their younger years.
Your question brings up an interesting twist on this age-old complaint because it's not about changing your rules at home to be like that abstract group, "everyone else;" it's a more immediate and real concern about changing what you do at home to help your son feel more confident about hosting his friends.
Understand His Ask
Although we may rush to the cliché, "if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?" to instill confidence in one's own individuality, the reality is that as social beings, we do a lot of conforming. That's kind of how social groups and community end up working out. So, I appreciate your acknowledgment that your son is not challenging you to be like "all the other parents," but is wanting to impress his friends and not feel too different.
As much as we prize individuality in parenting and want to nurture confidence in each of our children's uniqueness, we want them to have friends and know how to get along with others. Part of developing strong social skills (by the way, very predictive of many types of success in adulthood) is finding common interests with peers. Research shows that from babyhood, children gravitate toward those who appear similar to them.
When our kids want to be like the other kids, it's a natural and healthy part of their drive to be social beings. It doesn't mean we give them candy in their lunches every day or allow unlimited video game time, but we can at least acknowledge the importance of feeling like they belong, and, at least sometimes, find places where we can bend our rules.
Collaborate on House Rules
The great news is that your son sounds satisfied with his non-video-game home when it's not about having friends over. That is a major parenting achievement in this day and age, so give yourself a huge pat on the back! Then, think about ways to flex these rules with your son's social life in mind.
At the age of nine, he can collaborate with you to develop a plan that falls in the middle of the two extremes: zero screens and hours full of screen time. Is there a way he could share what he loves to do at home, like building Legos, with what his friends love to do? Knowing how hard it can be to transition from screens, it might make sense to start with a non-video-game activity to test the waters, but with the permission to get out the video games afterward.
Be Your Child's Coach
This is also when you have a license to eavesdrop. As your son's ultimate life guide, you can listen in to how his friends respond and how your son handles it. You can get a sense of what he's dealing with in terms of peer pressure, and if he needs any coaching to manage it.
Best case scenario? Your son has kind and respectful friends who like your son for who he is and not what he has to offer. You discover this, and so does he. He becomes more confident in both his home as a fun place for friends, and in his friends. Likely scenario: It's not all that clear-cut, and there will be more discussions and tweaking. Regardless, it is an opportunity to figure out friendships and how to be an individual while also belonging.
The Bottom Line
In between moments of my own 10-year-old daughter begging to watch "grown-up shows" like Stranger Things, she has actually thanked me for our rules. As much as she wants to test the limits, those limits also help her feel safe, and at least part of her knows that. Your son may also be grateful for your rules and the refuge they have created, but also grateful for your openness to be flexible around friends.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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