“Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” This is one of my favorite (and most repeated) parental sayings. I brought it up in conversation with my son four years ago, soon after we drove past the kids on the beach. The kids who used to be his friends. The kids who were spending the summer mostly unsupervised, and many of whom were getting into trouble.
So we talked, my son and I. He wrestled with what was true and with what he wanted to be true. “These are my friends,” he reminded me. “They aren’t all bad. Some of them were just hanging out for fun, not necessarily doing anything wrong. Maybe,” he added, “I could be a good influence on them. It’s better than not having any friends at all, right, Mom?”
To which I said, “Maybe. Or maybe not.”
Guide them to make wise choices
Yes, there is definitely a time to invest in others who need a good influence in their lives. We value reaching out and befriending kids who need a friend. We do that by inviting them to spend time in our environment: participating in sports with the boys or connecting at our home, at youth events, and so on.
But hanging out on the other kids’ turf or with a group of teens in an unsupervised location? Not such a good idea; it puts our children in vulnerable situations. In a setting like that, it is much more likely that my son will be influenced by the group than that he will influence others.
Understandably, my son longed for a good friend. And when our boys are looking for a close friend or a group of close friends, they need a lot of wisdom. It is helpful to teach your son the qualities to look for in a close friend. Close friends should build you up as a person, make you better, and share your values. Close friends should not put you in compromising positions or make you uncomfortable about standing strong in your convictions. Close friends should be people you want to be like.
And here’s some really hard news for a thirteen-year-old: These kinds of friends can be hard to find. Even more so when you live in a small community like ours.
Of my first three boys, only one has been lucky enough at thirteen to have two friends who not only share his interests but also are Christians who, so far, are making good choices. We also know their families well. This is rare. The other two boys—and in fact most teenage boys, according to the moms I connect with online—have found the search for healthy friendships more challenging.
This is because during the tween and teen years, young people try on different identities as they decide who they are and who they want to become. And those who used to be good friends often begin to make choices—big or small—that compromise the values they once claimed to have. This can leave our children with the choice to either join them or part ways.
This is why I am passionate about talking to our kids about all this friendship stuff well before they face it. If you’re raising a “good kid” yet haven’t prepared him for these changes, he’s likely to be caught off guard. He may find himself facing peer pressure without even knowing what to call it. He might fear that not following the crowd will leave him friendless.
These are important conversations to have with your son before he faces the pressures that come with growing up.
Be present and involved in his life
And to be a part of all this, you’ve got to be around. If he doesn’t have someone to talk to about his changing world, then little by little a steady stream of small compromises may draw him away from the principles and values you’re working to instill in him. If you aren’t close enough to recognize what is going on, then this “good kid” might become even more vulnerable to unhealthy influences.
Mom, this simply isn’t the time to look the other way while our sons figure things out for themselves. The urge to fit in can cloud a boy’s mind, making it hard to see the ugly precipice he’s being drawn toward. Our job is to coach and encourage our sons in all the things they face: relationships, social challenges, and all the rest.
Over the years our family has talked often about friendships and options for how to respond when friends pull away, get into trouble, or suddenly develop a negative attitude toward authority. We help them figure out how to navigate these relationships so as to remain friendly and genuine but not get drawn into the vortex of negative influences.
Since boys don’t naturally tend to talk about feelings, it’s up to us to pay attention. To truly know what influences are shaping our sons, we must be involved in their lives. We need to know personally the kids in our sons’ lives, and we need to meet their teachers. It helps to volunteer and get involved in school or other activities.
Whatever it looks like for your particular situation, I highly recommend finding time to show up and make connections with your son’s world. In many ways this process has been simplified for me because of homeschooling, yet I have known a good many homeschoolers whose parents get busy with work or travel during the teenage years and leave kids unsupervised perhaps more than if they went to school.
Be prepared to make sacrifices as a family
Whatever your family circumstance, I encourage you to get creative with your schedule and find ways to spend as much time in your son’s life as possible. Sometimes small and big changes are necessary. If your work schedule makes it hard to be available, perhaps you could find a way to work less, downsize, or simplify life for a season so that you can be home more. Having a parent at home before and after school makes a huge difference in kids’ lives.
As I mentioned earlier, studies have shown that having regular family dinners (at least three times a week) is highly correlated with kids staying out of trouble. I have one friend who stepped down as the president of a company because her husband worked a lot and she realized how much her kids needed someone at home. It was a hard choice, but she has never regretted it.
If your son spends long days at school or you work outside the home, mentoring him through the obstacle course of friendships and relationships will require intentional effort and energy. And a lot of it. For those times when you simply can’t be as present as you’d like, you might consider recruiting family members or close friends who can fill the gap.
Sometimes it’s necessary to make a tough call in behalf of our kids. I know parents who changed school districts, homeschooled their kids for a year or more, or even moved the whole family to a different town because their kids fell under some negative influence.
There isn’t one easy answer, but if you feel your son is going down a dangerous path, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to remove the influences or remove your son from them. The key is to be purposeful in these years, even if it requires you to rearrange and sacrifice. Find a way. Your small changes now may change the course of your son’s life.
Am I suggesting our boys should not be friends with the kids who are in the habit of making bad choices? No, but it means they should be cautious of these friendships. These aren’t the kids they ought to be hanging out with away from good supervision, having sleepovers with, or trusting on the level of a close friend. That may sound a bit cold, but it’s a simple truth: We become like the company we keep.
This isn’t a new concept. Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, warning them, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’ ” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NASB). And before that, King Solomon said, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20, ESV).
The teenage years are the prime time for our boys to heed that warning.
Editor's Note: This passage was excerpted from Boy Mom: What Your Son Needs from You. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Ridofranz
Monica Swanson is the author of Boy Mom: What Your Son Needs from You, a popular blogger and host of the Boy Mom Podcast. She has contributed to the Today show website, the Huffington Post, and the MOB (Mothers of Boys) Society. She and her husband, Dave, a hospital physician, have one son in college and three more boys, who divide their time between homeschooling and surfing. The Swansons enjoy growing tropical fruit at their home in the country on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Visit her at www.monicaswanson.com.