Social Viruses

My seven-year-old son is picking friends whose families don’t share the same values as ours (i.e.: TV is not limited or monitored; too much Nintendo; smoking environment; lack of close supervision). I don’t know how to reconcile myself to this development. To what degree, if any, should I interfere?

If an epidemic strikes, the safest people are those who have been inoculated against the disease; most of those who have had no previous encounter with it die. Because of this, we make sure our children have their “shots”, which make sure that they won’t catch infectious diseases if they encounter them. What is the magic substance in the needle which prevents the child from getting the disease? Dead germs! Germs to which the child’s immune system forms antibodies, so that when he encounters live germs, the antibodies will attack and kill them. I believe we need to “inoculate” our children against “illnesses” of the value system, by exposing them to less harmful forms of the “germs” of dangerous lifestyles early in life, so that they will be immune when they come across more dangerous forms later.

1. Don’t overprotect your child. I have seen many children who were very carefully protected all the way until high school or even college, and then went completely wild, trying out whatever had been forbidden, because they had developed no capacity to assess what was dangerous in their new lifestyles. Sometimes when well-meaning parents keep their children completely away from social dangers, they not only postpone the problem but make it worse when it does happen.
2. Inoculate your child by controlling and supervising his exposure to negative values, in your home rather than elsewhere. TV and friends are the best tools for this.
* Set limits on TV watching, but don’t forbid all low quality TV. Instead, watch some inferior TV shows with your child, and discuss with him why what they portray isn’t good or isn’t realistic (e.g. “TV says it’s okay to be violent if you’re the good guy, but did you know that the bad guys often think they’re good guys too?). Be prepared that some shows may not be as bad as you expect : I love watching Simpsons with my kids because in my opinion it’s great social satire. The same thing with Nintendo : I found that it teaches turn-taking and cooperation as well as visual-motor skills, and many of the quest-type games teach creative thinking and problem-solving.
* Watch the TV commercials with your child and discuss what lies they may be telling. To demonstrate this, buy your child one of the toys the TV says is so great, and empathize about how they lied when the toy falls apart after two days!
* Don’t let your child go to his friends’ homes if there’s no supervision. But don’t ban these friends, because exposure to healthy peers and adults can do wonders for them! Have your child’s friends over to your house, and supervise their play. Set some behavioral limits for all the children present, and discuss values with all of them. Teach and nurture the other children as well as your own when they’re on your territory.
3. Recognize which social “germs” or “viruses” are so dangerous that they must just be avoided completely. There may be times when you need to intervene to change your child’s friendships. Don’t let him be around adults (parents) who have serious behavioral problems such as yelling, hitting, stealing, or using drugs. At age seven, children form friendships mainly on the basis of proximity. Ask the teacher to change the seating arrangement. Invite over peers from healthier families. If these measures don’t work, consider moving your child to another class, or even a new neighborhood. A healthy neighborhood helps your child’s exposure to dangerous lifestyles be more gradual, an inoculation rather than an infection.

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