By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
“Could you give her some advice?” I ask my teenage son.
“Sure,” he says, and heads in to talk to his 8-year-old sister, who’s had a tough day at school.
These days, I find myself doing that more and more as my almost 16 year old is becoming more like an adult, less like a child, and my daughter is metamorphosing into a big kid. With a new school year and new grade, my daughter’s navigating ever more complicated waters at school. She’s on track with the three r’s. For both my children, it's school’s other “r” that elicits no end of daytime turmoil and evening tears: recess. If you’re a child whose struggling socially, the very worst time of the day is recess, when you have to either risk rejection by approaching other children, or simply play – or sit – alone.
Slow going with friends
Last year, it took my daughter half a school year to make two good friends – and then this year they ended up in the other classroom; so once again, she’s on her own. At dinner, when I ask who she played with, she’ll tell me, night after night, in a very calm way (Why is it worse when they’re calm about it?) she sat alone. She tells me, so adult-like:
“It’s slim pickings. All the girls already have a best friend.”
“I’m not so good at making friends.”
And the zinger:
“Nobody will play with me.”
This is one of those gut-wrenching parenting moments that can come as a shock when your child starts school. No one warns you that there will be times when your exquisite child is friendless – often for no obvious reason.
To be clear, I’m not talking about bullying – or even bullying in the form of exclusion. But some kids just don’t pair up easily or quickly. Instead, they sit on the benches and stand against walls while everyone else is screaming with joy, happy to be in the thick of it, on the playground. My daughter is slow to warm up and waits for people to come to her. In preschool she sat in a tree every day during recess for about three months, looking down at the group of girls playing doll and family – games she didn’t want to play. Finally, I suggested she ask the girls if she could be the family dog. Incredibly, that worked and she came down from her tree for the rest of the year.
The days of match-making are over
But the older the child, the more difficult it is for a parent to fix. I can’t match-make friends the way I could when she was in preschool, setting up play dates in the hopes that one will create an instant friend. My maturing child suddenly has a say in the matter – “Mom, she’s just not my style of person.” Plus, the advice I offer – “Why don’t you just ask so-and-so to play at recess?”– often falls on pre-tween ears as nothing but my cluelessness about the complicated lives of second graders.
So I was thrilled when my teenager confidently agreed to offer his advice. Fifteen minutes later, my daughter emerged from her room smiling that, once again, her big brother came to her rescue.
The next evening, I tried to keep the anxiety out of my voice when I asked her how recess went.
“It was great!” she announces. “Olivia asked me to play.”
I try not to gasp because Olivia (her name has been changed), as all the moms know, is the “It” girl in her class. Everybody wants to play with Olivia.
“Olivia? That’s nice,” I say. “How did that go?”
“Good!” she answers, and happily explains that she took her brother’s advice about making friends. Look at that, I thought. He’s become so wise.
“What did he tell you to do?”
“He told me to play it cool. He said that I shouldn’t act desperate. Nobody likes people who are desperate.”
“Hmmm, how did you play it cool?”
“When we were in the middle of playing squirrel, I walked away.”
“You walked away in the middle of playing?” I ask, trying to mask my rising sense of panic. “Did you ever come back?”
“Yes,” she said with a shrug, as if she didn’t care in the least that she walked blithely away from the most popular girl in her class!
“Was Olivia still there?”
“Sweetie, I think Olivia might have been confused by what you did. Next time when you’re playing, you shouldn’t walk away.”
She looks at me, semi-stunned. “Really? Was that bad?”
“Well, no, not bad, but you can be a good friend by just being yourself. Leaving might not be the best way to make a friend.”
“So I’m a bad friend!” Now she’s on the brink of losing it. “I ruin everything!”
Reliving junior high miseries
I’m quietly bashing myself over the head: Bad mom! Bad mom! Why do did I go and harsh her second-grade happy-buzz? It takes awhile, but then I get it: I’m so worried about her ruining any chance she gets at friendship because, having been a parent for 16 years, I’ve been through this time and again: being the helpless observer when your child doesn’t get invited to a birthday party, a play date, a slumber party.
What’s more, parents’ worries over their children’s social lives often have to do with their own jumbled history that, even if it had gone well for elementary school, can without warning implode somewhere around junior high, when suddenly having a good, true friend seemed as impossible a feat as waking up with straight beautiful brown hair and ridding yourself of your freckles and retainer. I don’t want my children to suffer social wounds that stay with you for life, but of course I can’t. I also know that, even though a good teacher can make all the difference for a great learning year, the deal breaker for kids – when it comes to thriving at school – is whether or not they have a good friend. One is all it takes.
But if all these years of parenting have taught me anything, I know that as painful as it is, I have to step back and let my child figure most of this out on her own. My daughter has always done it in her own way, in her own time. I just have to wait for her to come down from the tree.
She makes this clear the next night when I suggest, again, that instead of benching herself at recess, she could ask so-and-so to play – she looks at me in the eye – again, very calmly (who’s the adult here?), and asks, “Mom, would you rather play with somebody who isn’t really your friend or would you rather be alone? I’d rather be alone.”
I’m curious to hear from other parents: do you have a child who is slow to make friends? If so, what do you do that may, or may not have, helped? I’d love to hear your stories.