Dear Dr. Debbie,
We’re considering a local move which would likely put our children in a new school. One of the neighborhoods we are considering has a wide economic mix. Since both my husband and I grew up among neighbors of similar means, we’re wondering how to support friendships with children who come from a lifestyle vastly different from ours.
Mrs. Middle Class
Don’t miss last week’s blog How to teach patience — Good Parenting
Dear Mrs. Class,
There are certainly differences in the childhood experiences of extreme wealth or extreme poverty. There are also, however, enough universal activities and needs that any two children with similar interests and compatible personalities can easily find common ground.
Friends need a convenient place to be together. It is probably more awkward for the adults than it is for the children if homes differ significantly in cost. Children are more likely to be interested in what games and snacks are inside than whether the landscaping is professionally maintained. But as you’re getting to know your new neighbors, help your children arrange time with friends at a place that is not the home of either one.
Perhaps your children will elect to join an after school activity or club at which they can pursue an interest with other children. If your community has a recreation center or playground, suggest this as a meeting place for your children to forge new friendships. The public library is a great place to work on a school assignment with a friend. If you are lucky enough to be near a park or museum that has ongoing free programs, this could also serve as the place the new friends could get together.
Zero cost fun
To skirt the issue of who pays the bill when friends go to the movies together (when one child may not have the ability to pay anything), explore the many ways friends can have a good time together on nobody’s dime. They can play games, draw with sidewalk chalk, play at the playground and more. There is much fun to be had at a park until the children (or their parents) are comfortable enough with each other to meet at one another’s homes.
The more activities the friends can do together that do not require any money, the less an issue it is for the relationship.
Meet the parents
To support your children’s friendships further, find a way to meet the parents or guardians. Take advantage of school activities at which parents and are invited. Introduce yourself or ask the teacher to point out the parents of your child’s friend if the children are not there.
Pickup time from an after school activity is an excellent chance to meet the families of your children’s friends. Strike up a conversation about what you have in common – the ages of your children, the children’s mutual interest, the weather, etc. If the school does not organize opportunities for parents to meet one another, join the PTA and offer to do it yourself.
Hold a movie night, board game night, pajama story time, or other age-appropriate family activity for the class, grade or school. Ask a local grocer or restaurant to provide refreshments, or pool PTA funds so there’s no charge for families to participate.
Worst case scenario, the other child’s parents don’t show up for any of these things and you have to reach out another way. Try sending a note through the teacher . Your friendly “Hello, Can we get together at the playground, this Saturday at 2?” should include room for a reply or a phone number.
Be Clear About Costs
Let’s say you are successful in making that essential parent connection. Get past the chitchat stage to find out enough about one another that you can trust each other with your children. Now the friends can be together for family meals, outings and overnights. Economic differences may mean a difference in how much each family can host a visiting friend. On the one end, poverty limits a family’s ability to provide extra food, to go places, and to have room to spare for an overnight guest. On the other end, wealth may include social and business obligations that preclude having a friend come over.
The children won’t keep score about the other family reciprocating in kind. True friendship is about sharing experiences, laughs and confidences with each other. Likewise, a good enough friendship between sets of parents implies the adults aren’t keeping score on the costs either. But if an out-of-the-ordinary activity is being planned, for example a week at the beach, be upfront about whether a contribution is expected. If there is an expected cost, and it’s not affordable, then just stick to the ordinary activities. If the adults can be honest with each other about what is beyond their means, it will not cost the children the friendship.
Benefits to cross-economic relationships
You are to be commended for wanting to support your children’s friendships beyond your own economic strata. Research on economically diverse classrooms suggests that differences in backgrounds and perspectives promote skills in critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Also, children gain real experiences that can counter stereotypes.
When your children see you accepting and working around differences, they also can appreciate the worth of every person.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.