I steal every moment I can to observe my daughter interacting with other kids. I watch her at the library story time, the park, birthday parties, or play dates (which are rare – my personal parenting downfall). During the school year I could sometimes peek through the lunch room door (before another kid spotted me and yelled “Addie, your mom’s here!”).
I notice how she buzzes around kids who interest her, not quite knowing what to say. I see her whole body try to engage – rocking tentatively back and forth on her feet, hands half waving, leaning her face in a little too close for a chance to smile. Frustration often clouds her face though, furrows her teeny brow, and makes her walk away from another kid (or worse), instead of successfully engaging.
Even as a baby she has always turned into a ray of sunshine around others. Since she obviously lacks my social anxiety, I never thought she would struggle to make friends. It turns out there is more to it than fearlessness and longing.
Before preschool started last year, we talked to Addie a LOT about how to be a good friend: be kind, play nicely, share, use words, and to expect the same treatment from others. We gave her a script, a trick we have used since she started talking, to relieve any anxiety. She practiced with us, and Owen, and Penny Dog: “Hi, I’m Addie. What’s your name?” and “What’s your favorite color? I like pink and purple.”
She listened, but spent a lot of the year pushing, yelling, and hair pulling instead. Like I said, it turns out there is more to making friends than mere aspiration.
No big deal – at three years old, she has plenty of time to learn social skills, and the emotional control to employ them. It will take ongoing conversations and practice, but I have things I would like to teach her about friendship.
- It should be easy to fall into a friendship, even though it may require a little work here and there to maintain it. It should not be the opposite – difficult and forced to start.
- The very best kind of friend is one whose company is effortless. One you don’t have to try to be anything around. One who understands your silly jokes, and your silence, and also your deepest secrets. If you find a single person like this, you have hit the jackpot.
- Not everyone has to be friends. It is fine – admirable even – to try, not have it work out, and simply be acquaintances. As long as it is all done with kindness.
- Pick friends to whom you can (and want to) tell anything. As much as I would like to think otherwise, the time will come that you no longer tell your mom everything, and feedback can help you make the best decisions. Have friends who will listen and talk through situations with you.
- Be loyal, and demand loyalty, but be realistic. Accept mistakes, flaws, and human nature.
- Don’t be a sieve; don’t be molding clay. Admire different traits among your friends without feeling like you have to try them on for yourself. (Unless they are getting straight A’s and speaking kindly to their mom – feel free to adopt those behaviors as your own.)
- Be part of a group of friends. Or don’t – have a few here and there. Both are perfectly good ways to go through life. Just try not to be lonely.
- You have to be a friend to have friends. Show up sometimes, even when you would rather not. The time will come when you need them to show up too.
- Have trust in your friends, but never blind trust. You are still responsible for your own thoughts and decisions.
- Whoever you choose to spend time with, and however you choose to spend it, make sure your soul is happy. Friends are fun.
It took me decades to learn some of these lessons. Many I only know in retrospect, in light of their absence. But don’t we always want, for our children, the things we feel we lacked? Will it screw them up in the opposite direction – giving protection from some of my hardships, yet opening them up to alternative issues I never faced? (I am purposely leaving those questions hypothetical because I know nothing and choose not to guess.)
Addie still has everything to learn about socio-emotional skills and relationships, and she will. It’s tricky, but rewarding, business. Soon it will be a new school year, at a new school, and then kindergarten before we know it. Soon she will truly turn the corner from toddler to little kid. Soon her world will expand beyond the scope of our home and family. I hope to be ready to help her navigate friendships, in some ever changing form, for many years to come.