You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose...

 ... but you can't pick your friend's nose. At least that is how the saying goes. As a parent, I sometimes think it should end with can't pick your kid's friends. 

I have spoken often about the impact we have on our kids as role models. Even when we think they are not paying attention, they are watching... always watching. The decisions we make, the way we respond to other people, the attitude we display about work, family, life, is all taken in by our super observant kids. In research done at Ohio State University, the observation habits and focus of 4-5 year old children were compared to adults. They concluded that adults focused their attention on specific things when learning a task or new subject while the kids were paying attention to everything! Can you recall your spouse yelling your name at you while watching TV and being surprised at why she was angry? Then adding to that surprise when she said she called you 5 times before you answered. Yet, your 4-year-old playing happily with her blocks in the living room will suddenly comment on the conversation you and your wife are having quietly nearby. I am getting a little off track here. My point is that our kids are listening and absorbing the good and the bad from us so we should endeavor to represent the good as often as possible.

One well-known father, Aristotle, had a son Nicomachus and a daughter Pythias. Perhaps we can assume he took a philosophical approach to child-rearing. He is quoted as saying, "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man." This idea is repeated in more modern studies that our kids develop the most between age 0 and age 7. It is not definitive though and not universally agreed upon. If you have teenagers in your house you have probably noticed that they are NOTHING like the sweet, wonderful angels they were at 7...

But, our kids are not living in a bubble. From 3 years old, the average child heads off to pre-school where a typical class size is about 15 kids. From that day onward, our kids are observing not just Mom and Dad but also Gottschalk, Guido, John, Rashn, Nazli, Keiko, NĂ¡ndor, Azat, Sally, Kalju, Oihana, Rachna, Noah, Rahul*, and Ms. Janet (the teacher). Those 3 hours a day quickly jump to 7 hours from Kindergarten or first grade. Add additional time if your kids are taking the bus. These are prime time hours as well. Our kids are now seeing us rushing in the morning and then tired from work in the evening. The majority of interaction is happening with friends and teachers. What about the weekends you say? Sure, and that is great if you can make time for your kids after catching up on everything you put off to the weekend (laundry, lawnmowing, fixing the sink, grocery shopping, writing blog articles). As they get older, the question may be, can they make time for you? My son (college age) came into the kitchen just yesterday and said to my wife, "Long time no see." Both of them have been busy with work and had not seen each other for 2 or 3 days even though we all live in the same house.

Here is what we know:

  1. Kids learn and develop through observing and responding to the actions and attitudes of the people around them. 
  2. They continue developing well into their teen years.
  3. From age 3 onwards, they spend an increasing amount of time with people other than their parents.
Those "other people" have an increasing amount of influence on how our kids turn out.

 Generally, your choice of schools and teachers for your kids will be limited to your level of income. The more money you have the more choices (private or boarding school). That is a subject for another article. I have been thinking more about my kid's friends recently. We know that employers like to see mature applicants with focus and energy. They want confident new employees who are willing to work hard and put in the time and effort to grow and learn on the job. Are your kid's friends helping or preventing your son or daughter from getting there? Should we really be choosing their friends for them? I am going to argue for "yes" here and suggest that the most powerful tool in your arsenal is the playdate.

A playdate happens somewhat like this:

Parent A: (calling on the phone or texting) Hey, would you like to have a playdate next Tuesday?

Parent B: Sure, let's do it at our place at 3pm after school.

Parent A: Perfect, see you then.

Parent A brings their child over to Parent B's and the two kids play happily for an hour or two while the parents drink whatever beverage they prefer and chat. Simple right? Yes, it is only for an hour or two but there is a carryover effect. The 2 kids, having had a chance to play and get to know each other better in a 1 on 1 situation, are now more likely to connect at school and play together at school thus increasing the amount of time they interact.

For kids up to middle school, you can make this work. It gets more complicated but still possible into high school. In the teen years, the kids need to be seen as an add-on to the outing. For example, going out to eat at a restaurant with your other parent friend and inviting your teen to tag along (the other parent doing the same). If the restaurant is one they like they may go for it. I have seen this work as well with activities such as go-carts, billiards, camping, shopping, and sporting events. The impact from the friend is lessened for older kids as their relationships at school have solidified somewhat but there is the added effect that your kids will interact and observe the parents more when sitting at the same table in a restaurant than the 5-year-olds will playing with legos at the house with their friend. As with just about everything that seems to matter in parenting, it will take effort, time, and probably money. Maybe step one is getting to know who your kid's friends are in the first place?

 The HeadhunterDad, AKA Lawrence Kieffer, is a professor of career studies at Temple University, Japan campus, the COO for Fidel Consulting an APAC Recruiting and Staffing firm focused on IT professionals, a devoted husband, and father of two amazing kids. Follow on TwitterLinkedin or Facebook.

* Random preschool student names thanks to the Random Name Generator: