Dealing with Social Deficit Disorders

Published July 1, 2004

The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends
by Natalie Madorsky Elman, Ph.D. and Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. ($14.95, 352 pages, paperback, Little, Brown and Company, 2003, ISBN: 0316917303)

Although written primarily for parents, The Unwritten Rules of Friendship is a book every elementary school teacher should read and have available to parents who are concerned their child is having a difficult time making friends.

As the book explains, whether a child is excessively shy, over-sensitive, a poor sport, prone to temper tantrums, or a bully, the problem often arises because the child is unaware of–and thus too often breaking–Unwritten Rules of social interaction. This book helps parents teach their children those rules and practice observing them.

“The key factor that determines how smoothly children (and adults) get along with others is whether or not they understand and can follow the Unwritten Rules that guide social relationships. Some children seem to pick these up automatically, naturally. Others seem oblivious of them,” write authors Natalie Madorsky Elman, director of the Summit Center for Learning in Summit, New Jersey, and Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Westfield, New Jersey psychotherapist.

Unwritten Rules are everywhere, not just in school, explain the authors. For example, there are Unwritten Rules involved in something as simple as riding an elevator. After we step in an elevator, we automatically turn around to face the door. If we stood with our back to the door, we would be regarded as “strange” by other people on the elevator.

Similarly, a child who doesn’t follow the Unwritten Rules of Friendship will be regarded as “strange” by his or her peers–for example, a child who mimics everything, word-for-word, that another child says; a child who tells his or her peers when they are breaking school rules; a child who breaks into tears when the teacher corrects an error; or a child who yells and argues with other children until he gets his way. All these children are breaking one or more of the Unwritten Rules of Friendship. They want friends, but they don’t know how to behave.

“Unless they know the Unwritten Rules of social situations, children cannot possibly use social skills appropriately,” write Elman and Kennedy-Moore.

Elman and Kennedy-Moore introduce the rules in the context of nine prototypical children with friendship problems, including the Unassertive Child, the Born Leader, the Intimidating Child, and the Young Adult. As these children and their variants are introduced, the particular Unwritten Rules that each type of child needs to learn also are introduced.

For example, one of the most important rules the Unassertive Child–the “bully magnet”–needs to learn is that vulnerable body language attracts bullies. To help the Unassertive Child, the authors provide a description of how different body language signals confidence or vulnerability. Throughout the book, they provide suggestions for teaching the rules, together with strategies for parents to help their children overcome the specific difficulties they encounter in making friends.

One important suggestion is for parents to help their child develop a group of friends outside of school, such as through a church or synagogue, or through a special interest/hobby group. Having a group of friends independent of school makes the child less vulnerable to fickle changes in popularity at school.

“At their core, the Unwritten Rules are about kindness and civility. They emphasize talking and listening to one another, respecting and caring about one another, and reaching out to help one another,” write the authors. “True friendship grows from a sense of connection.”

In previous generations, children learned how to behave with other children in largely unsupervised and spontaneous play groups in their neighborhoods, where the behavior of older children provided the role model. With children’s leisure activities now taking place under adult supervision and structured by age, children have fewer opportunities to recognize and learn the Unwritten Rules.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].