How should kids choose friends?

I am getting fat. I was thin when I lived in LA and NY because people in those cities are thin. People in rural America are fat. Really fat. And I’m getting fat living with them.

You become who you spend time with. Sometimes I coach college kids who want to go to law school to work for the ACLU, or defend poor people from ills of society or something like that. I say, “How will you pay off your law school loan?”

They always say they will work in a big law firm, pay off the debt, and then become a do-gooder. But it never happens like that because even if you are not a money-grubbing power-hungry lawyer type, you are surrounded by those people in big law firms because why else would they spend thirty years doing corporate law? And even do-gooders become who they spend time with.

We know we become like the people we spend time with from the Framingham Heart Study.  It’s a famous, long-term study about heart disease where we accidentally learned tons of information about how people live. The study participants are nurses and they’ve been meticulous about reporting reliably year after year for decades.

We know from the study, for example, if your friends drink, you will probably drink. (Note: I started drinking when I moved to Wisconsin, which has a huge alcohol culture.) If your friends are fat you will probably be fat. Not just nurses, but everyone. Even lawyers!

I notice that I don’t choose who I spend time with randomly—I tend to choose intellectual, low-maintenance friends. (Low maintenance as in I can refuse to answer my phone for a week and they don’t take it personally.) If I were surrounded by very emotional people I don’t think I’d be able to make a friend.

So I wonder about putting kids into a perfectly balanced classroom where there are boys and girls and intellectuals and sports stars, and kids have to search to find someone like themselves. I’m not sure that is really how the world works.

First, I think we tend to surround ourselves by people like us. Just like we hire people who are like us. But also, if we are in a place where people are not like us, we change to become more like them.

(Which brings me back to getting fat, of course.)

The same is true of kids. If they hang around kids who are fat, the kids will become fat.

A sociological study of kids in school shows that kids make friends not based on who they are or what they are interested in, but rather, who is in close proximity to them. Who is in math class, for example.

If you put kids in school to get exposed to kids who are different from them, all the kids will melt toward the mean, no matter how smart or talented or fat they are.

But if you let kids choose their own context, then they do, in fact, choose their own friends. Just like it works in the adult world.

It turns out that if you let kids eat whatever they want, they are likely to choose what’s good for them. And I have a feeling that’s true for friends as well.

25 replies
  1. Karen
    Karen says:

    Stop drinking if you want to lose weight. Alcohol has a ton of calories but in my opinion women look better carrying a few extra pounds after age 40 when we have to choose between a nice body and a fuller looking face.

  2. Kim J.
    Kim J. says:

    You might be interested to know that a nutritionist at the U of MN (my brother’s friend’s mom) did a follow up study to the one you cite–it was sometime in the 80s or 90s. She found that given a choice, sugar won every time. I used to babysit for them and she had all sorts of sugary things in her cabinets, for research, I guess…

    I do agree with your argument that if given a choice, kids will choose the friends that are good for them, though.

    • jv
      jv says:

      I’ve been around kids, in their homes, for more than 30 years. Kids will more often make the better choice when they are allowed to make their own choice on a consistent and regular basis regarding food. It’s the ones who have meals placed in front of them day after day and never have a say in what they eat who go for the sugar every time.

  3. MBL
    MBL says:

    We had been in Minneapolis (a lovely place if you are from here or marry someone who is, otherwise…) for nearly 4 years before we started homeschooling. It wasn’t until we did that I “found my people.” A major reason for my putting our daughter in our neighborhood school rather than HSing from the start was to meet people. Things were okayish, but not the lovefest I was hoping for.

    Attending our very first HSing event in 2012 was one of the first times I felt I could relax and not be so guarded in years. About the only criteria our daughter has in a friend is that they possess a high degree of creativity. She willingly opts out of situations that don’t measure up.

    Regarding the study of kids in school link, I truly hope federal funds weren’t used.
    “Students were more likely to make friends in small classes, often electives, which set them off from the general student population. Friendships were more likely to be created in Latin 4 and woodshop, for example, than in a large physical education class that is required of everyone in a particular grade.
    Students who take the same set of courses tend to get to know each another very well and focus less on social status, such as how “cool” someone is. They’re also less likely to judge classmates on visible characteristics like race and gender.”

    Soooo, they self-selected based on interests and abilities and then made friends. Fascinating!! Classes like Latin 4 and woodshop…who’d have thought?!?!

    “They focused less on social status…” Things must have really changed in the last few decades because I recall social status and course selection as being fairly intertwined. Not completely segregated, but the stereotypes certainly held. In middle school and early high school, there were four cheerleaders in the GT program, by junior year, there was one. I made friends most easily in art, which wasn’t an elective until 7th grade.

    I think that secure kids will choose fairly appropriate friends who are good for them. But if the child doesn’t know who she or he is and is searching for an identity, then I wouldn’t count on it.

    I have noticed that middle school seems to be an interesting gateway for girls to switch between HSing and institutionalized schooling. The ones who go from HSing to mainstream seem to maintain their sense of self even when there is stronger pressure to conform. And those who opt out of the system do so in order to find or maintain their sense of self before the die is cast. It may well be true of boys too, but that hasn’t been on my radar.

    I don’t believe there is a one size fits all regarding “best diet” for all body chemistries. Low carb is ideal for me as having any sugar in my system leads to a dark, dark place.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I lived in Minneapolis for several years, and LOVED it! Great city. Loved uptown.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I took my DH to MOA for the first time, this was years before my change-over to healthy foods, and we stopped in the candy store on the first floor. He bought one of those baseball sized jaw breakers, and the following conversation is something I still tease him about years later:

      Lady: Do you want a beg?
      Lady: Do you want a beg for that?
      DH: What are you talking about?
      Me: She means BAG, do you want a BAG for your stuff.

      Ahhh, I miss MN. Good times there.

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Fun!! :D

        A little MOA PSA. Nickelodeon (maybe it was Camp Snoopy when you were here…) offers a pass for kids on the spectrum (and other challenges.) The child still needs a wristband, but a chaperon 16+ can ride for free, they can enter through the exit, and ride twice in a row. The pass is good for up to 4 riders including the child. It is issued for a year and has absolutely saved the day for us on busy days. When we had Fall Passes, we didn’t use it all the time or for all rides, but when we needed it…it made all the difference.

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    Since I was a very young kid my dad would constantly suggest I become friends with so and so because he saw something desirable in those kids.

    I hated it.

    I hated that it wasn’t spontaneous and that I didn’t think, very often, those people were very kind and fun.

    The truth is, I gravitated towards kids who were sweet and accepting, humble, willing to help others. Not rude, selfish, self-impressed.

    But the thing is, my dad was right. As an adult, I seek out people that are either much more like me or have traits I like and want to develop.

    I can’t do emotional high maintenance but for some reason people swarm me when they feel they need direction, they need to feel better and accepted. I have no idea what vibe I give off.

    I think kids will pick their own friends. Maybe directing the way is not a good move. But it’s not that different than moving from a horrible neighborhood to a better one. My dad took us out of Arizona and brought us to the Northwest in hopes we would be sort of forced to acculturate better and more smoothly than if we were constantly surrounded by people who spoke the same language and had similar expectations (refuse to acculturate and criminal activity was normalized).

    If your kid is surrounded by gangs and a culture of low expectations then that will be normal. So there’s something that can be done to place one’s family in a better environment.

    But then after that, I think it all comes down to the principles instilled in the kid. If your kid is big ideas and business driven and a take-charge kind of person, then he will seek friends who are excited to take on those endeavors. Most likely a friend who needs someone to take charge and direct the show.

    I have a friend who is very impressive in the mothering front. It has changed the way I speak to my child and the way he responds. My boss is from a whole different societal tier altogether. It has changed the way I approach and think about a lot of things. But this didn’t come by accident. I handpicked these people to surround myself with.

    Mostly because my dad’s teachings stayed with me through all these years. I’d rather be alone than in bad company. I hope I teach that to my child too.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    So I got a completely different take-away from this one, I’m not exactly sure why, but I started thinking about the movie “The Breakfast Club” and thought this quote was appropriate:

    Dear Mr. Vernon

    We accept the fact that we had to spend a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think it’s stupid for you to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms with the most convienient definitions. But what we found out is that each of us is a brain, an athlete, a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

    Sincerely Yours,
    The Breakfast Club

  6. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    My 2-year-old daughter has always loved cherry tomatoes, which are not the most popular amongst young kids. And she also loves oak milk. She doesn’t like animal food, so she doesn’t eat things with dairy (except for some cakes and cookies, even then she eats just a little), or meat, or eggs. She likes a bit of fish though.

    My 4-year-old loves eggs, but he also hates the smell of pork, beef, chicken etc. Every time we walk pass that butchery section in the mall, he runs past it, saying it stinks. He refused one pre-school we visited because they were cooking some kind of meat and he found it the smell disgusting.

    I’d be very interested to see how they choose their friends. And I think I agree with you, that they’d choose who’s good for them.

    Although, do they tend to hang out with neigbors just because it’s close?

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The question of “How should kids choose friends?” should be closely followed by “How do kids get mobile to choose friends?”. They start by crawling; then walking across a room, yard, etc.; then walking to someone’s house; then riding a bike; and then getting public transportation, drive a car, etc. As they get more mobile and find more ways to do so independent of their parents & babysitters, they actually do more of the choosing themselves over a larger geographical area. By the time they’re eighteen (or sooner), they’re usually willing to try life on their own and on their own terms. Mobility and friendships determined by themselves. Very often, if they want to go to college, the preference is away from home to get more independence. When they start earning their own money and get a place of their own, that’s when they really have the freedom to choose friends.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So insightful! I find myself consumed with the idea that I am homeschooling my kids so they make successful choices as adults. And of course that means careers to me. Because of my job. But it should mean friends. That’s a better goal. Or an additional goal. Or maybe the biggest homeschooling question is what is the goal… Yes. Probably that is true. But friends are in that answer – whatever that answer is…


    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Mark this really is an insightful comment!

      It was true for me that once I was financially independent and more mature I actually had freedom to handpick my friends and seek out people I found interesting for different reasons.

      But not before. Before that it was about proximity and whoever would like me enough to take me in with all my flaws (because I didn’t have the maturity to recognize I could pick who I wanted to be around).

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Thank you Penelope and Karelys for your comments. This is a good opportunity for me to express my gratitude of your authentic voices and others in this community. I’ve learned much here about myself, homeschooling, and education in general.

  8. UnschoolingMama
    UnschoolingMama says:

    I live in Minneapolis. I love this blog and check for new comments daily. Happy to read that some of you have been here too and like it. :)

    Ever consider hosting a homeschool forum, Penelope? There’s such good conversation here.

    • Alli
      Alli says:

      Also in the Cities! And also love this blog. Keeping the 5 and 7 yr old home from school starting in the fall…largely thanks to following this discussion for a couple years. #wishusluck

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Alli, your comment makes me so happy. I started homeschooling from this discussion as well! Now that I think about it, I actually started the blog before I started homeschooling because I couldn’t stop thinking about these ideas. It’s nice that the discussion on this blog keeps working for other people the way it worked for me.


    • MBL
      MBL says:

      “Hi y’all!” (I’m from NC originally.)

      I second the forum request!

      I hope your basements are faring better than ours. :o

  9. Erin
    Erin says:

    I’m not sure how this relates to the phenomenon of facebook & google only telling us the news we want to hear, but I can’t shake the association. (Reference: TED Talk, What FACEBOOK and GOOGLE are Hiding from world. ) Perhaps you have an insight??

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Erin, this is such an interesting comment. Your brain works like mine! I’m convinced the ideas are related as well, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a control thing, I think. That someone else controlling our input — in terms of people or information — is scary and somehow not quite living a full life.


    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      I get paid to do “machine learning” but I’ve never thought of it philosophically. Perhaps the reason I love physical libraries and bookstores and retail is that I want to apply my own filters, and I know how easy it is for algorithms to put me in the wrong box.

      Really cool connection to making friends.

  10. Thomas Rippel
    Thomas Rippel says:

    The study you link to does not supporr your point. They only offer the kids healthy, natural foods.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      That’s because it’s a study of 6-11 MONTH-olds from 1939, when processed foods, for all practical purposes, did not exist.

      But that’s par for the course when it comes to Penelope’s links.

  11. Jen
    Jen says:

    FYI, the Framingham Study is not made up of nurses. My grandmother is in it and she was a teacher. Study participants are people who lived in the town between the ages of 30 and 62 when the study began. There is a nurses health study..but completely different study.

  12. Kim
    Kim says:

    This is such a good post. It squashes the whole social diversity debate that school advocates keep pushing. Notice, it’s only the school advocates that push it, never the kids.

    Going to a very culturally diverse schools, taught me one thing. Diversity stops at the door. Peer pressure and the dog-eat-dog world of school doesn’t allow for diversity.

    If you were constantly pressured to look, behave and talk like a group of people who would, otherwise, bully, harass or beat you up, you would comply. It’s called survival of the fittest. It’s going along to get along.

    Only in a free environment, like everywhere but school, can that happen because there is no threat.

    Also, when you’re in a strange environment, your natural tendency is to seek familiarity. Kids are forced to leave their home and spend hours in school, it’s unfamiliar so they seek familiarity, i.e. their own cultural group. It’s what adults do all of the time but no one gives them a hard time about it.

    It’s not like kids are learning different things from each other. Regardless of culture, school makes kids mindless clones of each other.

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