Q: I’m concerned about middle school. My child will go from a small school and a small class where I know all of his friends to a big school and lots of classes and a lot of kids I don’t know anything about. I know I have to let him grow up and choose his friends and that I can’t do that for him. How do I help to make sure that he’s around some kids who will be good influences? I was thinking of asking the principal to put a couple of his friends in at least his homeroom. Am I being too much of a helicopter mom if I do that?

I wouldn’t say helicopter. I would say crop duster. Unfortunately flying overhead, killing all of the pests, will not make your child choose the right friends. It will only delay his ability to tell a good one from a bad one. Besides, when it comes to identifying which of a child’s friends are the good influences and which are the bad ones, parents are notorious for getting it wrong.

So allow me to make an alternative and oft-repeated suggestion: instead of preparing the world for your child, try preparing your child for the world. In this case, that does not look like hand picking your child’s friends for him. It means teaching him how to pick good friends on his own.

I would start by discussing with him the importance of choosing the right encouragers. Most people think of their child’s friends as mere buds or “besties” or BFFs. As a teacher, I see them more as cheerleaders. A cheerleader’s primary task is to give the team the extra motivation to win. Good friends serve much the same purpose in our children’s lives.

Every child has been given the gift of free will (sorry Calvinists, we disagree), and most of his or her decisions will come from his own heart. Ideally he uses his conscience, convictions, experiences, and character to make good decisions. But sometimes an outside influence can tip the scales in the wrong direction.

For example, I taught a wonderful girl we’ll call Lee. She had a good heart and high character. She was a girl of faith and good sense. But there came a time in high school when she started sneaking out of her house, stopped going to her youth group, neglected her schoolwork, and began fighting with her parents. Why? What changed?

The boyfriend.

He wasn’t a nice guy. He didn’t share her same positive values. His possessiveness and preoccupation with sex influenced Lee to make bad decisions, decisions she later regretted because they turned her into a girl she never wanted to be.

He was a bad cheerleader. When she was torn between sneaking out or obeying her parents, he cheered for the wrong decisions, and she listened.

You have to teach your child to be wary of choosing the right cheerleaders. No football team would pick cheerleaders who “rah-rah-ed” for the other team. They wouldn’t be permitted on the field if they led the crowd in cheers for every errant interception or clumsy fumble. It’s absurd to even consider. The same should be true for each of us and the people with whom we surround ourselves. Our friends are our cheerleaders. If they applaud our bad decisions and boo the good ones, we should hold tryouts for new ones.

A favorite story of mine is about a student who was getting into trouble in school and had recently been arrested. With the help of a positive teacher and a new group of friends, he turned his life around. A year later, the teacher saw the student and asked him if he was still making good decisions.

“It’s hard,” the boy said. “It’s like I have a black dog and a white dog inside me, fighting for control.”

“And which one wins?” the teacher said. The student replied, “The one I feed the most.”

Encourage your children to surround themselves with people who appeal to the better angels in their nature. Teach them that if there are those in their lives cheering for the black dog, to be brave enough to get rid of them. And if there are friends whose influence feeds the white dog, to keep them close by.

Above all, be a good cheerleader yourself. Fill your child with positive media influences. Get him involved in groups where there are good coaching and teaching role models.

Sometimes I feel like my job as a middle school teacher should be 10 percent instruction and 90 percent cheerleading. If we can encourage kids to make good decisions, a dearth of facts in their brain will never hold them back. But if we sit idly by and allow the black dogs inside of them to grow and dominate, no amount of book learning can save them.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent.