Good friends

As parents, we naturally worry about who our children take as friends. We’re worried about unserious mates who will distract them from their studies. We’re paranoid about county lines drug gangs targeting our sons. We’re frightened about groomers targeting our daughters.

We want to give our children room to grow, but end up straddling that fine line between protective parent and suffocating autocrat. We want them to have a happier childhood than we had, but are overwhelmed by the challenges of the age.

Part of the problem is that we remember our own youth so acutely, recalling our own bad choices. We remember the things we did in pursuit of a sense of belonging and fraternity, which are sometimes difficult for us to grasp today. Peer pressure was immense even then, without the pervasive power of social media.

The need to belong rendered many of us blind. Looking back to my own late youth, I realise that I didn’t know some of my mates at all, until we parted company.

One mate I imagined to be the Muslim version of my good little Christian boy, adhering to a morality like mine, keeping to the straight and narrow. Alarm bells should have gone off when as a seventeen year-old he started dating a girl three years younger than him.

But, in truth, I never understood what path he was walking until I accompanied him and several of his mates to a nightclub for our college leaving party. The dance floor, it turned out, was a hunting ground, as young men I had imagined to be paragons of virtue went out seeking to get laid.

That wasn’t my world at all. It wasn’t what I was seeking. Furthermore, if my parents had known what we were supposed to be getting up to there, I would have been out on my ear. The drink would have been fine, but the spliffs and the one-night stands: no way.

Case in point: the day my sister came downstairs ready to go out for her own school leaving party, my dad boomed, “Aren’t you going to get dressed?” That was his own very undiplomatic way of saying, “You’re not going out like that!”

My mate, as it happened, had parents as strict as mine. The difference was that he didn’t fear them and didn’t take anything they told him seriously. But he was not alone. Even young men who would have stopped at nothing to defend the honour of their own sisters were found moving in on the apparently beautiful young women they found before them.

I suppose it was a blessing that I could hide behind my geek kid nerd persona to flee that environment. What a blessing that when a young man tried to offload the friend of a girl he fancied on me, she took one look at me, laughed and walked away. My form, it turned out, was a blessing in disguise, though I couldn’t see that at the time.

For our own children, the best we can do is steer them. To have conversations with them about what is honourable behaviour and what is not. To help them make informed choices about the company they keep. Not to be blinded by what they believe to be true, but to really understand what is good for them and what is not.

We cannot live their lives for them. No doubt they will make mistakes just as we did. But as parents, we still need to play our part, to set out a vision for them of what wholesome relationships look like. In that, we must lead by example. Let them aspire to the way you have lived your own life. Let it be something that truly appeals to their best nature.

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