Dear Rachel,

My neighbor frequently texts me to ask for a play date for her son and mine. My son does not like to play with this boy and it is a fight to get him to agree but I feel bad to always say no. I want to teach my kids to be kind and inclusive. Should I be forcing them to play with kids they don’t like? What about playing with cousins? Is this different? My niece is two years younger than my daughter and always wants to play with her. My niece has really poor social skills and is objectively difficult to get along with. I want my daughter to understand that family is important and that we should be close with them. How to navigate these situations?

Forced Friends

Dear Forced Friends,

This question is wonderful in that it has many different layers to it that will lend to a lot of learning and valuable insight.

Let’s start by defining what a healthy relationship looks like. Healthy relationships include mutual respect, trust and safety, communication, partnership and personal freedom, boundaries, and consent (among other things but these are the essential ingredients).

When we are teaching kids about healthy relationships, it is crucial that we model and teach them about consent and boundaries. These are the foundations of healthy relationships with ourselves and others. It should be noted that boundaries and consent are the most important things we teach kids about when we talk about sexual abuse prevention and body safety.

Put simply, boundaries are a form of self-care. They are limits you put in place in order to protect your mental health and well-being and your relationships. I often say boundaries are not walls, they are fences because they let the good in and keep the bad out. Boundaries can be digital, spiritual, physical, emotional, financial, and relational. Things like having no phones at the dinner table, choosing who we want to be friends with, deciding not to argue with family members, muting a WhatsApp chat, not taking on other people’s problems, and saying “No” are some examples of boundaries.

Consent is the notion that we should respect one another’s boundaries, in order to be safe, preserve dignity, and nurture healthy relationships. Teaching consent starts from the time our children are babies. By simply talking to our kids when we change them and bathe them, we are teaching them the basics of consent and boundaries. As they get older it will look more like asking if they want to be hugged, not forcing them to kiss Grandma Lizzy, listening to them when they say they have had enough to eat, etc.

Forcing kids to be friends with someone they don’t connect with or forcing them to go on a play date with someone they don’t enjoy playing with is ignoring and violating their consent and personal boundaries. It teaches them that they can’t trust their own intuition and judgement. It also teaches them that their feelings are not safe with you because you won’t believe them, validate, or honor them. Kids who learn not to trust themselves turn in to adults who don’t trust themselves. Training them to ignore their feelings and, essentially, become people pleasers puts them at risk for increased stress, anxiety, and depression as well.

Your kids don’t have to be friends with everyone. Actual friendship is different than being kind and it is also much deeper. Choosing friends is a highly personal decision. What makes a good friend for one person might not be the same for another. Let your child learn what they like and what they don’t like specifically in a relationship. Let them find what fulfills them. Forced friendships are never positive (imagine how you would feel). Unless you see bullying or signs of outright rude behavior, honor your child’s decisions and let them decide who they want to connect with.

The same applies for family relationships. With regards to your niece, you can say to your sibling something like “Hanna has been saying she doesn’t want to play with Lilly lately so out of respect for her and the sake of their relationship long term, I’m not going to try to force it.”

It is important to teach our kids to be kind and respectful to everyone and they learn this first and foremost from our treating them and those around them with kindness and respect. Of course, we want them to have empathy and be inclusive too. Research has demonstrated that these qualities can help ensure their success later in life (both personally and professionally). That being said they can have all those qualities and still choose not to be friends with certain people.

Forcing relationships doesn’t teach anything about the value of family, kindness, or being a good person. Instead, it teaches kids to ignore their own feelings, place the comfort of others over their own (people pleasing), and to engage in relationships that make them unhappy. This is a recipe for disaster.

Harvard psychologist, Dr. Richard Weissbourd, runs the Making Caring Common project which is a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education aimed to help parents and educators teach kids to be kind. He suggests five strategies to help raise kind, empathetic kids:

1. Make caring for others like their siblings, friends, and community a priority; honoring commitments, respecting boundaries, valuing consent, and holding space for people’s emotions.

2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude by donating old toys and books, showing appreciation to teachers, chayalim, friends.

3. Expand your child’s circle of concern by volunteering as a family and creating awareness of those who have struggles and hardships.

4. Be a strong role model and mentor by being a good friend yourself, an honest person with integrity, and a caring human.

5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings by helping them learn emotion regulation. This is key for strong mental health and healthy relationships.

Brené Brown, a famous researcher and author, (most well known for her work on shame and vulnerability) found that the most loving and compassionate people were also the most boundaried. She has said about her own journey of becoming more boundaried in her life that: “When I began setting boundaries, I became less sweet. Far more loving, but far less sweet.” Boundaries keep us out of resentment and enable us to be more authentically loving and generous with those around us.

As Torah observant Jews, boundaries are very much in line with how we live. The Torah is one big book of boundaries. It tells us what G-d wants and doesn’t want. What we should do for ourselves and what we should do for others. How much matzah to eat and how tall the sukkah should be. How many days to celebrate a holiday. Laws of charity, kosher. Times to mourn, times to celebrate. Boundaries galore. The Torah is the perfect example of how boundaries serve to enhance our lives and relationship with G-d, our loved ones and ourselves.

Let us learn to stop people pleasing and instead honor our and our children’s needs so that we can ALL show up better in our relationships and be more loving and genuine in our interactions. 

Rachel Tuchman, LMHC, is a licensed therapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her social media platform, public speaking, and online courses. You can learn more about Rachel’s work at RachelTuchman.com and follow her on instagram @rachel_tuchman_lmhc.

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