Bribing friends and influencing people

On the very day Hallmark earmarks for love, my older son got a great lesson in how to win friends and influence people, and it wasn’t from giving out Valentines.

He, or I should say I, actually failed to hand out the usual heart-shaped suckers and drugstore-purchased paper cutouts offering up super-lame missives like, “I choo choo choose you!” to all and sundry.

Instead, my 9-year-old very strategically used the meager offerings inside my not-so-carefully curated care package — a fruit leather and an individual-sized package of Oreos — to find his way into the hearts of others.

At pick-up on V-day, Eli told me how the Oreos had won him back into the fourth-grade boys’ War Club after he’d not so nicely lost his temper with its young leader. And then, the fruit leather got him promoted by the club’s second in command, “To Commander-In-Chief Two Stars!” he told me excitedly.

My first thought was to lecture him on the evils of bribery. But then I remembered the lessons of Pokemon.

See, Eli had always been a bit shy, pulling back at parties or in new situations, unsure of how to proceed. Then, in first grade, Pokemon came on the scene and, with a stack of cards in hand, he was all of a sudden meeting new kids on the playground and at recess with great confidence and enthusiasm.

I had always sworn not to be one of those mothers who bought my kids things just so they would fit in, but it occurred to me then, watching Eli, that, like adults with alcohol, kids need social lubricants, they need some sort of something that is mutually agreed-upon as something of interest, something of value to all involved.

I begrudgingly bought my boys Pokemon cards, as I have since then bought them (within reason) well-beloved Legos, Hex Bugs, and Beyblades, relatively inexpensive popular pastimes du jour that they can share with friends on the playground or at our house.

These are things that offer them something to offer to others, things that can act as teaching tools as they learn to give the more long-lasting requisite gifts: kindness and care of other people’s feelings.

I don’t routinely send the boys with snacks so they can bribe classmates, but I have heard that such things often work in the lunchroom. In this case, though, I was glad the holiday snacks came in handy. I did point out to Eli that losing his temper wasn’t good, that he was lucky to have been let back into the club at all. He wouldn’t always have Oreos and he needed always to try to be kind. But I had to commend him for his admission of wrong-doing, his willingness to sacrifice a precious snack as pay-back. That was, in the end, probably why he was let back in the club.

And it’s a valuable lesson: People are only allowed in clubs if they are willing to negotiate and to acknowledge when they’ve acted badly. It is only with such recognition and repentance that we might again get in a friend or desired friend’s good graces.

This is a lesson I myself seem to have to learn and relearn again and again, a lesson that I am pained but pleased to watch my kids learn amongst their peers at a young age. They will forget and learn it again many times, I am sure, in so many ways.

I didn’t want to reward Eli’s efforts at bribery, but in one form or another, it’s what we all have to do to make and/or keep friends: we have to do something for them. It’s not always stuff, of course, though sometimes it can be.

I invite people over all the time with the promise of a home-cooked meal and some decent wine. Or I say I have a really good story to tell to get a friend to hang out with me. I offer a listening ear, or a car or a guest room or a cup of milk when a friend or neighbor is in need.

In social situations, it is always and forever important to figure what we have as collateral. It is a lesson best learned early that everyone has to get something out of a relationship to stay in it. And if you should wish to be part of a club, as Eli learned first-hand, you must be friendly and flexible, especially to its leader.

Making other people feel good — whether well-fed, entertained or listened to — is the fastest way to make and keep friends. It’s not always easy to remember, but I try to remind myself and my kids of this fact often: playing well with others means thinking not only of what you can get, but of what you might give. And, more often than not, we will be stranded with only our words and deeds, without an Oreo or fruit leather to be found. Then, the great hope is that lessons learned early on the playground, sharing Pokemon cards or snacks, will translate into giving of a far more serious nature.

My fingers are crossed that Eli’s early bartering is a good sign of his eagerness to engage fully in the difficult challenge of building and maintaining relationships, even when it means giving up something he might want.