Some parents are ‘friendgineering’ their children’s social circles

I recently worked with a father conducting due diligence for his child’s inevitable transition from her small private school to a larger public school.

He evaluated the variables and factors that could impact this change. Admittedly, his daughter had expressed zero concern over the matter; perhaps the change was too far away to seem real, or perhaps she simply didn’t know what she didn’t know, and plugged along in the spirit of ignorance is bliss.

But life experience provided her father with Doppler-like radar that forecast the predictably unpredictable reality of what awaited her.

Our meeting traversed the peaks and valleys of her new, educational landscape, yet routinely circled back to region of teenage social dynamics. It was here that we broached the topic of “friendgineering.”

Say what?

Friendgineers seek to control their child’s friendships, by pairing them with or keeping them from a specific peer (group). These actions are motivated by social hierarchy and void of cause.

While born from good intentions (think babies and playdates) some parents now sadly overemphasize who their kids “are,” as opposed who their kids are. This father was aware of the landmines awaiting his daughter, but wasn’t willing to recklessly insulate her from or actively drive her toward certain kind of peers.

He refused to be a friendgineer. Props to him.

Parents should be active in their children’s lives, but resist the temptation to friendgineer.

But how?

Help your child find their thing. Maybe it’s a traditional sport, or a martial art, or painting, or theater, or working; whatever it is, providing your children ample opportunity to be around like-minded and equally busy peers helps them find their lane, their niche, their thing, which in turn builds confidence, creates structure and develops responsibility, all of which are valuable traits.

Respect and use the power of proximity. The expression, “Show me your five closest friends, and I’ll show you your future” (credit: Matt Bellace), is true to a fault. Teens morph into a combination of their friends. New friendships stem from new opportunities to find them, so provide new experiences, new teams and new environments for your children to make connections. Kids hang out with who they’re around the most, so if you want to change who they’re with, change how, when and where they spend their time. Social osmosis is real; use it to your advantage.

Communication is a must. Provide your children, early and often, with the framework to be successful. Clarify your family expectations, rules, aspirations and unconditional love. Eliminate ambiguity; nothing negatively impacts teen decision-making more than ambiguity. Your children need to know the limits, the consequences, and that you will be consistent in your delivery as parents. If you build a fence, they’ll play in the yard. And when they don’t, they’re not surprised by your reactions.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. Sometimes working from behind the scenes simply won’t cut it. The fundamental role of a parent is to keep the child safe, and if someone or something is making them otherwise, never hesitate to get involved. As described earlier, the father would not police the menial but he would never hesitate to remove her from a dangerous scenario where her safety was being marginalized.

Breathe through the discomfort. My wife and I have discovered our oldest daughter was completely unaware of some of her most anxiety-riddled situations.

Really, it was our own insecurities shining through, as we descended down the rabbit hole, as if her makeup dance class was a combination of “Liv and Maddie” and “House of Cards.” We anxiously walked her in, and left her, and watched, and waited as she just danced and smiled and laughed. You get the point.

Final thought. The most vibrant children come from the same general pedigree: they have found their lane, surround themselves by like-minded peers, possess a clear understanding of their family paradigm, and have parents who provide them with enough real estate to learn grow without giving away the farm.

DANIEL PATTERSON, a former Newport-Mesa Unified administrator, recently launched Patterson Perspective Inc., a consulting company specializing in teenagers, education, college planning and parenting.