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Conflict in Homeschool Groups: helping our children build and maintain friendships

By Beverley Paine

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, at homeschool group a couple of children fall out of friendship. In such close knit groups this can be quite unsettling for everyone. I have to admit I used to over-react and try to coax the children into being friends again. They rarely appreciated my interference and most of the time they didn't need it either. It usually didn't take long before the grumpy youngsters were best friends again, problem forgotten.

That's something I learned from children: it's okay to 'let go' and simply get on with life sometimes, rather than always analyse the situation, resolve the conflict, apologise and forgive. Children move quickly, physically and mentally, and my clumsy attempts at patching things up were too slow. I know this because the children would look bored, as well as pained, that mum was 'doing her thing again'.

Every now and then though, one friend would cross the line with his or her behaviour and the whole group dynamic would be shattered. No one wanted to play with that child again. The parents would gradually ostracize the family of the offending child. Excuses might be made that would confuse and hurt the excluded family. It is sometimes easier to reject a friend altogether than to complain about her child's offensive behaviour.

Often, the final action that breaks the friendship comes after many attempts by the other children and families to solve the problem. Children are amazingly resilient and forgiving. Usually when issues between children come to the attention of parents it is because the children have already exhausted their repertoire of problem solving skills. They've had enough. It's harder when the children have reached the point where they gang up on the offending child. This is well past the point of intervention by adults.

No one should have to put up with offensive behaviour. As parents we need to champion our children: this doesn't mean immediately taking their side or protecting them. It means showing them how to avoid conflicts by being better friends in the first place. Probably the most important way we do this is by modelling positive and constructive friendship behaviours with our friends. Reading books and watching movies about friendships and talking about the way in which the characters resolve their conflicts is another tool we use.

Few of us are taught what it is to be a friend - we learn it by becoming friends, by having friends, and by being a friend. Often this isn't in the most ideal conditions. Schooled children learn friendship in a competitive environment. I've watched countless children new to homeschooling disrupt the happy dynamics of a homeschool group, with games they've brought from the school playground. These games are often not very friendly in nature and set one group up against another group, or victimize one or more children. Adults say it's all part of learning and growing up and making friends. I don't think so. But that way of playing is a fact of life and there isn't much we can do - other than promote home education - to change it. We need to help our children find ways of coping with this kind of established anti-social behaviour.

When we, as adults, put up with this kind of anti-social behaviour what does that say about the way we think? What are the thoughts that motivate acceptance of it? Are these the thoughts we want our children to embrace and internalize, the same way we did? For me, I was always afraid of what people would think of me if I didn't go along with the crowd, even when what was happening didn't make sense, wasn't friendly, hurt others or myself. I believed the nonsense that I wouldn't be liked or respected if I stood up for myself or my friends or what I believed. Because my children were seldom subjected to anti-social playground behaviour they didn't have that set of fears and behaved differently. They weren't afraid to put a stop to anti-social games, or to simply refuse to play. This challenged me at first - I was afraid my children wouldn't fit in, or wouldn't have many friends, or they wouldn't be liked, etc. My children lived and operated in a new paradigm though, one in which their self-confidence and respect for themselves and their friends took centre stage. My fears proved to be unfounded and essentially irrational.

Children are taught to be unfriendly, selfish, mean, nasty, and anti-social. They are taught that to be a 'good friend' they need to put up with that kind of behaviour and that in some instances it is even okay to instigate it. This is a corruption of the whole idea of friendship. We don't have to play the social game by those rules!

Children are also taught that friends are hard to come by and that it's important to do everything you can to win and hold them. Who you are and how successful you are as a person is often judged by how many friends you have. Facebook and other internet social networks is the ultimate expression of this corruption of the concept of friendship. It is understandable that we and our children think twice about ending friendships. However, when friendships consistently involve disrespectful, aggressive, violent or hurtful behaviour it is time to think carefully about how healthy it is to have that friendship in our lives. As parents we need to help our children end friendships that hurt them. In our own friendships we need to model the importance of communication, of seeking clarification, of listening attentively, of saying what we mean and being honest about our feelings. We also need to use language in ways that build strong scaffolds for our children to use in their relationships. Sometimes this means being explicit and spelling out in more words than we'd normally use in conversation, with the same care and attention we'd give to helping our children learn any other part of the 'curriculum'.

One of the most useful tools I've found is using 'I' statements, changing my colloquial use of the word 'you' in everyday speech to take ownership of my thoughts and beliefs, rather than projecting them onto the universal other, 'you'. This sidesteps the issue of blame and recriminations, which doesn't generally lead to solutions or 'win-win' outcomes. Instead of shouting "You always quit, you're a loser!" to manipulate someone to stay and play (fear of being abandoned) communicate what you really want: "I like winning, but I like playing with you more - please stay and play and I'll help you learn how to win too."

By modelling this way of talking about what is happening in our friendships our children naturally pick up the tools to manage and handle their relationships. It is the cornerstone of assertive behaviour and helps children build friendships by first getting to know themselves - the natural way to learn socialisation skills.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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