Strong Friendships, Strong Families

Strong Friendships, Strong Families
Your friends are a priceless treasure–both to you and to your children.
Paul Thigpen

© 1997 by Paul Thigpen

It was a day that all sons dread but few escape: the day I buried my father. My soul was raw, and there wasn't a balm in the world that could ease the ache even for a moment … or so I thought. But when I looked out the rear window of the black limo in the funeral procession, the grief suddenly vanished and my heart leapt up with joy.

Stretched out for miles behind us–down the highway, over bridges, as far as I could see — were hundreds of cars, filled with folks who had loved my father dearly. It was a multi-mile parade celebrating the exuberant life of a man who had known how to make good friends, and plenty of them.

That day I realized just how much my parents' friendships had meant to me and to my brothers and sisters. Over the years, we had been drawn into the circle of Mom and Dad's closest companions, whose love for them had spilled over onto us as well. Only now, as parents ourselves, can we appreciate how much the strength of those relationships contributed to the strength of our family as a whole.

Has Family Life Cooled Your Friendships?

The personal experience of most people affirms the scriptural insight that "a faithful friend is beyond price" (Sirach 6:15). Friends broaden, balance and complete us; they fill in our gaps, pull us out of ourselves, give us a shoulder to cry on or a kick in the pants when we need it. Even Jesus, the perfect human being, surrounded Himself with friends, and we get a glimpse of how much they meant to Him when we read how He wept beside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus (see John 11:35).

For most of us, high school and then college or a new career provide the pleasure of at least a few good friends in our early years. Yet even those whose lives as single people are filled with friendships often undergo a dismaying transformation when they marry and have children: Somehow, it seems, they grow distant from old acquaintances, and they can't find the time to cultivate new ones.

Why the loss of friendships? In the first place, most of the companions of our youth are single. When we marry before they do, we grow to have less in common with them because marriage brings with it a whole new array of concerns they don't share. Consequently, old friendships may cool.

Second, the newlywed period is a difficult time of adjustment. To grow into a solid and stable relationship, marriages in their infancy require an intensive commitment of time and energy, so there may be little left of either to invest in other relationships. By the time we settle into a more normal mode, we may have grown distant from many of our old friends.

A third problem is that the companions of a new husband may be very different in temperament and background from those of a new wife. So we may not be immediately attracted to each other's friends or feel comfortable with them. Unable to agree on which people we would rather spend time with, we may tend to minimize our social engagements.

Yet another obstacle to a couple's friendships–and this isn't just the case for newlyweds — is the common but mistaken notion that spouses can and must meet all of each other's needs for friendship. Sometimes couples labor under the illusion that true romance and the ideal marriage mean total absorption in each other, so that attentions directed anywhere else lead to jealousy.

When children come along, we may encounter a new round of obstacles to friendships that are parallel to those we faced when we were first married. Once again, because we gain a new set of concerns, we may grow to have less in common with old friends, this time with those who aren't parents. The more our conversation focuses on breast-feeding and diaper rash, the less inclined they'll be to talk with us.

In addition, as with new marriages, new babies take so much of our time and energy that we may have little left over to give our friends. Who wants to get up early for a fishing trip with your buddies when you've been up all night with a colicky child? But without a continuing investment of ourselves in those established friendships, they're bound to fade.

Even when our kids grow beyond the care-intensive baby stage, the problem may remain: The more conscientious we try to be as parents, the more guilty we may feel about spending time with adult friends instead of our children.

What's the result of all these tendencies? Sadly enough, over time parents may slowly cut themselves off from friendships–or at least drain them of their depth and richness — without even realizing it.

How Our Friends Help Our Kids

No one would say that we should spend most of our evenings out partying with friends rather than talking to our spouses and playing with our kids. But if we allow the demands of marriage and parenthood to isolate us from the strength of healthy friendships, eventually our families will suffer from the loss as much as we will. That's because having close friends benefits our children in several ways:

A pressure valve. When the inevitable tensions of family life reach the boiling point, it's all too easy to explode all over our children. Close friends can provide a place to blow off steam away from home. Recreation with friends is also a good stress-buster.

Confidants. Job loss, bereavement, problems with extended family members, or other serious burdens can tempt us to take on our children as confidants, especially if we're single parents. But if we have adult friends to share the burden, it's easier to avoid placing our children in that unhealthy role.

Counsel. Friends can give us objective advice when we face decisions that affect our children's welfare. Older friends especially can offer a wealth of wisdom about resolving family conflicts, raising kids, and making career choices.

Material support. The circle of friends to which my wife and I belong often helps one another out when finances are tight. We may offer a night of free baby-sitting, share some meals, lend out a second car, or pass on clothes that our children outgrew before they wore them out.

Models of friendship. Making close friends is a social skill our children need as much as we do. We teach them that skill best by modeling healthy companionship ourselves.

An overflow of fun. When we have friends over for a good time, our children get pulled into the fun. They bask in the overflow of warmth and pleasure that flows from a hearty friendship.

In general, then, anything that makes us better people makes us better parents. So the healthier and happier our friendships make us, the healthier and happier our home life will be.

Filling in the gaps. Our families benefit even more directly when our children are allowed to cultivate their own friendships with our adult acquaintances. My wife and I have regularly prayed that God would bless our kids with adult friends, and He's answered that prayer abundantly. Since we don't live near our extended families, these adults function as surrogate aunts, uncles and grandparents to our youngsters.

Just as spouses can't meet all of each other's needs for friendship, parents can't meet all their children's needs for adult care. Our friends play with our kids when we're too busy, counsel them when our wisdom has run out, teach them skills we don't have, comfort them when we're too preocupied to notice they're hurting. In short, our friends fill in the gaps of our parenthood — and we do the same for their children.

Strong Friendships, Strong Families

If strong friendships can do so much to build strong families, what can we do to cultivate them? Here are a few simple suggestions:

· Shared values and interests are the building material of friendships. If you need new friends, you're most likely to find them among people with whom you have something in common — church, career, school, or anything else that's important to you.

· Cultivating a deep friendship with the people you already know takes time. Considering the packed schedule of most families today, that means we must plan for quality time with our friends. Otherwise, days, weeks and even months can slip by without seeing one another.

· Don't let differences of age, culture or income prevent you from building relationships; the people who are most different from you may have the most to offer in a friendship. Older friends especially make wonderful mentors and counselors.

· Since you can't meet all your spouse's needs for companionship, allow him or her personal space for friendships. Jealousy only hurts you both.

· It's good for couples to have close friends in common. But don't insist that all your spouse's friends must also be yours. If you're not especially fond of some of your spouse's buddies, try getting better acquainted with them. You just might like what you find once you dig a little deeper.

· Let your children share in at least some of your friendships. Point out the traits you find appealing in your friends. And don't be jealous if the kids should grow fond of your companions; children need adult friends too.

· A final caution: Be careful in developing friends of the opposite gender. It's best to keep that kind of friendship out in the open with your spouse, and to draw your spouse into it if possible. If your mate finds the relationship uncomfortable, back off; he or she may be able to discern unhealthy emotional attachments that you can't see.

Above all, remember that the old saying still holds true: To have a friend, you must be a friend. If the demands of family life have left you isolated, don't wait for others to initiate a relationship; reach out in kindness to someone in need.

In fact, that's precisely how my parents made so many good friends over the years–and today their children are glad they did.

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Ten Tips for Helping Your Children Make and Keep Good Friends

1. Model healthy friendships for your children to imitate. Let them observe firsthand the qualities of a close relationship, such as intimacy, honesty, loyalty, and mutual concern.

2. Give your children room to cultivate friendships. Allow them ample time to be with peers they enjoy, and recognize their need for privacy.

3. Make your home a greenhouse for young friendships. Encourage your kids to have their acquaintances come over often, and make their visitors feel at home.

4. Get to know your children's friends. The better you know them, the better you'll know your own children. At the same time, as you gain insight into those friends' unique personalities, you can help your children understand them better.

5. Be a friend to your children's friends. Most young people are looking for adults who will take an interest in them.

6. Talk over with your children what it takes to have a good friend and to be a good friend. Point out the people in your life and theirs who demonstrate those personal qualities.

7. Teach your children the skills necessary for avoiding and resolving conflicts with friends, such as good listening habits, clear communication, healthy confrontation, and the art of compromise.

8. When your family or your children's friends move to another locale, help them maintain contact across the miles. Make room in the family budget for periodic long distance phone calls and perhaps an occasional visit.

9. Welcome your children's friendships with other adults instead of feeling jealous. Learn to appreciate what those older friends can give your children that you can't.

10. Finally, be a friend to your children yourself. No matter how many other fond relationships they may cultivate over the years, none can ever take the place of a close friendship with Mom and Dad.

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