Children discover the special gifts of older friends

Children benefit enormously when they think of adults as people - capable of sharing friendships, interests, feelings, and confidences.

An older friend may add an extra dimension to a child's life. A youngster who likes to build and use tools, or loves to fish, may have parents who haven't time or enthusiasm for such activities.

A child who loves books may have parents who don't - or who are too busy to share books with him. But how he will benefit if he can spend time with someone who shares his delight in words and stories!

Kathy, a former student of mine, used to be alone every day after school. She often noticed a woman on her street working in her garden. Because she was lonely, Kathy would often walk over and talk to the older woman as she worked.

Mrs. Spencer, a retired bookkeeper, began sharing her knowledge of plants and gardening with Kathy. She taught her how to divide plants, how to propagate them , how to prune. As she shared her enthusiasm for gardening, Mrs. Spencer and Kathy became friends.

Kathy's parents had no interest in gardening or in plants. But Kathy developed an interest which gave her pleasure in lonely hours and skills that later qualified her for part-time and summer work in a plant shop.

An indifferent science student before, Kathy became interested in botany, plant propagation, problems of pesticides. She now plans to major in plant chemistry in college. All because of a friend - who was not a peer.

Colin, an unusually loquacious seven-year-old, has parents and two siblings whose lives revolve around sports. Colin doesn't care much for sports, but he is endlessly curious about the world around him and how it works. His questions went largely unanswered until a great-uncle retired near Colin's family.

The youngster explains it simply: ''Before Uncle John came, there was no one to tell me all the things I wanted to know. He's my best friend.''

An older friend can help a child's self-image. When I was a little girl, somewhere between eight and 12, two beautiful sisters lived next door. They were working women in their 20s. I loved to talk. They always found time to listen. They shared their hopes and dreams with me, never talked down to me, never criticized. I felt special - because they were my friends.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a friend as ''a person one knows, likes and trusts.'' Merriam-Webster Dictionary says a friend is ''a person attached to another by respect or affection.''

Unfortunately, many children don't know this - but instead think a friend is someone you ''do things'' with.

And sometimes, because our society is so inclined to view only peers as friends, we need to help a child see an adult as a friend.

An eighth-grade student I had in class was exceptionally bright, but made little effort in most subjects. Mr. Weipking, our vice-principal, shared my interest in Greg and spent considerable time talking with the boy. He rearranged Greg's academic schedule to provide more challenge. He persuaded teachers to try a boy who was an underachiever in their more advanced classes. He talked to Greg's teachers about the boy's family problems. Then he kept track of Greg, encouraged him, expressed pleasure at his achievements.

One day, I said, ''Greg, you have a good friend in Mr. Weipking.''

The boy was shocked. ''A friend? He's a vice-principal. Why, he must be 40!''

Many months later, when I assigned an essay on friendship, Greg wrote, ''A friend is someone who finds the good in you and concentrates on that. He helps other people recognize it. He wants you to do the best you can and he's pleased if you do. But, he doesn't make you feel ashamed if, sometimes, you don't.

''A friend doesn't have to be in your grade, live in your neighborhood, or play sports with you. A friend is someone who cares about you, even if he's pretty old, like Mr. Weipking.''

Greg made enormous academic strides that year. He learned a great deal - but probably nothing more important than that a friend doesn't have to be a peer.

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