To add to the list of things I never thought much about before becoming a parent, is the importance and skills involved in helping my children establish and maintain friendships. Like, Ana Gazawi in her piece, Choosing friends last week, I have been thinking about this subject with my son. With kindergarten looming on Sam’s social horizon, I have been checking in with him lately on what he is comfortable with, and where he might like some help. (Preschool is great for teaching Sam how to negotiate the intricacies of friendships he already has, so we’re all about how to make new and lasting ones.) Luckily, Sammy has a natural facility in this arena. My job seems to be more of one of helping him practice.
For example on the way to soccer camp the other day sounded like this;
Me: So when you see all these new kids today, how can you go about introducing yourself?
Sam: Hi. What is your name?
Me: Good start. Could you begin with your own name first?
Sam: Hi My name is Sammy. What’s your name?
Me: Great! And what happens when someone starts passing you the ball, or hanging out with you during snack time, and you forgot to ask each other your name? What can you do then?
Sam: Keep passing the ball. Or ask them for some of their food to share if I like it.
Me: Uh, sure. Can you think of a way to ask their name then too?
Sam: My name is Sammy, and I don’t know your name.
At the pool later, after camp, Sam sees a boy who was just in camp with him. He jumps up and down and points.
Sam: Mom that boy went to soccer with me! He did! I know him.
Me: Fun! Can you invite him to come over and play with us?
Sam: Hey! Do you want to jump in the pool with me?
New Friend: Sure.
Me: (smiling) Sam, can you ask your friend his name?
Sam: Mom if you don’t know someone’s name, you can just ask them!
For Sam friendship 101 may also include discussions about adoption, race, and not having a dad. At the same preschool for a few years, has been in a relatively safe place, surrounded by kids who know him, and us. Know that his mom looks different, and his brother does too. Know that Uncle is like a dad in a lot of ways, and that Sam is adopted, which means his everyday mommy (me) became Sam’s mom when he was one day old. Know that his first mommy, Tea, choose me to be his mom, and that she is a beautiful and loving mama, who Sam knows through letters and pictures. I have educated parents, teachers and children alike, on the language of adoption, the language of the love that brought our family together. (Luckily these kids have not been concerned about how the little brother came into being, so I’ve been able to skip the donor conversation so far! Marcel was conceived with the help of a Black donor, and is my biological child.) Friendship 101, has been a preschool community course, and it was easy by in large to get everyone on board, and keep track of the confusion, and correct it. All that is about to change.
We might also need to cover how his athletic ability is both an asset, and something that can be difficult for some kids to relate to when they do not feel as skilled or able as he is. Yes, he is that gifted, and we’ve already seen some friends collapse in a heap when Sam was that much better than them at hitting the ball, or riding a bike. Sam has remarkable physical intelligence, and learning how to manage that, like any gift will have it’s learning too.
And then there is that tricky thing called trust. When Sam takes money out of my wallet, and shoves it into his bank, and then comes to show me the new five dollar bill in the coffee can, I frame the conversation around friendship and trust.
Me: Where’d that money come from?
Sam: I took it from you.
Me: I really appreciate that you told me. You listened to that voice telling you that wasn’t a good choice huh?
Sam: Mom! I really need the money for the ice cream truck. Can I just have it?
Me: Tell me about what would happen if you took a new friend’s lunch money at school, when they weren’t looking.
Sam: They wouldn’t be able to eat lunch?
Me: Imagine if you couldn’t eat lunch, and it was your friend Sofie who took that money to buy herself ice cream later.
Sam: I’d be really hungry and mad.
Me: It’s hard to be friends with someone when you are hungry and mad at them!
Sam: Can I have just a dollar then?
So we keep practicing with every opportunity we have. What I’m really hoping for, as he approaches the gladiator’s arena of recess, and unstructured play is that he has the internal compass to guide him towards compassion and fun at the same time. Hoping that my less-than-likely-to-share-out-more-than-a-few-words-about-his-entire-day-guy, will have the words to tell me when his skills, did not seem enough to handle something that didn’t sit well in his heart. Help him know that if it didn’t feel OK, that it’s OK to walk away, and wait until he is ready to have that conversation another way. Help him learn how to trust his own heart, and reach out to those who need a little help too. Help him make good friends, that might be next to him in the real sense, as he walks across the stage to accept that high school diploma in twelve short years from now!
As the year progresses, I’ll be reporting on how it’s going, and how I’ve had to relearn my own friendship 101 skills as I start initiating play dates with the parents of the ones Sammy has decided are his new best friends now.
What are some of your own memories of making new friends? And what have been some of your parenting ah-ha’s around helping your young children learn how to initiate and maintain meaningful friendships?