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Speaker advises parents how to cope with social cruelty

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The sleeper hit of Family Weekend was a talk by Michael Thompson, an author, psychologist and school consultant specializing in social and emotional issues of middle school.

Dr. Thompson's best-selling book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Ballantine, 1999), focuses on developmental issues up to adolescence. His current research focuses on social acceptance and emotional health during school years. His well-attended October 15 talk, titled "Friendship Development, Popularity and Social Cruelty," was sponsored by the Family Resource Center.

"Friendship is the area of our children's lives most closed to us and where we feel most helpless. If you could leave here with one area of your child's life illuminated, what would it be?" he asked the diverse group. They responded swiftly: peer pressure and how to stand up to it, social cruelty and how to end it, and social networks and how to form and nurture them.

"We want our children to stand up to peer pressure unless it's what we call 'the good kind,' such as the kind where everybody does their homework. Then we want them to conform," he observed. "We want them to have friends that we like. But all we can do is choose the context in which they make their selection."

Research has shown that social relationships are a better predictor of mental health in adulthood than IQ and that beginning in middle school, most children know there's a difference between popularity and friendship, Dr. Thompson said.

"Everyone loses in the popularity wars -- everyone," he said. "But if you have a good friend, somebody who doesn't tease you when the group does, you are going to be all right."

Social issues facing older children need to be explored rather than feared or managed by their parents, Dr. Thompson said. He advised parents not to "interview for pain," as he called it, meaning don't start conversations about school or friendships with a "what's wrong" opener.

"Your role is to empathize with their pain and confusion, to receive and to hold it and not to go nuts with it. If you interview for pain -- as in 'Who hurt you today, dear?' -- you'll get pain. If you interview for strategy -- 'How did you handle that? How did you cope?' -- you'll get conversation," he said.

As for social cruelty, Dr. Thompson held schools responsible for communicating and sustaining a "moral context" in which bullying, excessive teasing and even sarcasm can be moderated. "Schools must make it clear that treatment of others is a moral issue," he said.

Dr. Thompson endorsed peer counseling, peer mediation and commitment by all members of the community as effective tools for building a culture of respect in a school. He advised parents to participate as well. "Don't wait until you're angry or frightened to start asking questions of teachers or administrators. You're part of that message about 'moral context,' too." ������

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 10, 1999.

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