For parents, the back-to-school season means a renewed focus not just on homework but also on friends, play dates, and all the social stuff that goes along with growing up. That makes it a good time to step back and ask how those social elements fit into your child’s education, alongside their books and assignments.
It used to be that making sure your child had a “best friend” was one of the best ways for them to get through the ups and downs of school life.
Kids don’t have to look far for role models. Harry Potter lucked out with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Anne of Green Gables had Diane, and in the global phenomenon that is The Diary of A Wimpy Kid series, Greg Heffley, a middle-school social climber, always has the hapless but trustworthy Rowley Jefferson to fall back on when things get difficult.
As the mother of three, I admit the best-friend relationship sounds reassuring when I think of my boys, none of whom I want to imagine being alone at recess or not knowing whom to sit with at lunch.
But this year, I’m taking a new approach–one motivated by my research about how different parenting approaches can help better prepare our children for the new world of work.
Former labor secretary and Berkley economist Robert Reich predicts that by 2020, more than 40% of the American workforce will be made up of “contingent workers.” Speaking recently to New York magazine, Reich estimated that by 2030, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be, in his words, “on their own.”
Regardless of when exactly the economy tips over to that paradigm completely, it’s clear that, more likely than not, our kids will be freelancing–on contract, part-time, and/or self-employed.
And that will require a much different skill set than the ones we’re now training our children to acquire–skills that are much better suited to our own time, when employee-employer relationships, while changing, are still more stable than they will be in the future.
In a gig economy (and in the broader labor force that’s taking more cues from it), the ability to constantly cultivate and regenerate new professional networks is paramount.
As the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed, it’s our acquaintances rather than our close friends who are our biggest source of new ideas and information.
I’ve been working a combination of freelance and consulting contracts alongside my entrepreneurial ventures for the past 11 years. I wouldn’t have been able to make my career work without having learned how to approach and connect with a diverse group of people. It’s a skill I honed growing up by moving schools, cities, and countries every two to three years–high school started in New Jersey, transitioned to Bahrain, and then ended in Switzerland.
In my coaching practice, I regularly see my clients struggle to expand their networks because they find meeting and establishing relationships with new people so stressful. But the truth is that you can learn to do it well and with minimal strain or anxiety. As parents, why wouldn’t we want that to be second nature for our kids?
“Who’s your best friend now?” remains one of the most common questions other people ask my kids.
But if we can start deliberately shifting away from the idea that good social relationships should be exclusive and focused on just one person and encourage looser, more casual friendships, we can help kids to:
- Adapt to multiple audiences
- Enlarge their sense of what they can do and how they can do it
- Develop their own personal style of managing their relationships
- Become genuinely comfortable with and enjoy the company of lots of different kinds of people
It’s an idea that’s now picking up traction. For instance, educators at a private day school in the U.K. bluntly told parents that best friends weren’t good for their children since it cultivates possessiveness and leads to upsetting breakups.
So how can you start to make this shift? Here are a few simple ideas:
- Model an openness to new and different friends
- Stop asking or talking in “best friend” language
- Encourage activities, teams, or camps where your kids will obligated to both meet new kids and be the new kid (this is one is hard, but so worth it)
- Use books, movies, and TV shows to point out how having different types of friends can be more rewarding (if they’re old enough, try just watching Mean Girls with them!)
Critics might see this as yet another example of modern hyper-parenting, and that’s a charge I can understand. But it’s our job as parents to prepare our kids, not for the world we live in today, but the one they’re bound to enter tomorrow. And after all, reducing our cultural obsession with the best-friend relationship isn’t just good for our children’s future career prospects, it also creates a more inclusive and welcoming environment that’s good for everyone.
Reva Seth is the best-selling author of two nonfiction books and the mother of three boys.