Fred was glum when I picked him up from school yesterday. I’d
assumed he was hungry or tired, until we were driving along and he started
telling me about recess that morning, how, for reasons unknown to him, his best
friends Jack and Luke suddenly ignored him.
“Did they know you wanted to play with them?” I asked.
“Yes! I told them I wanted to play together.”
“And what did they say?”
“Nothing…they ignored me the whole time…even after they saw
me leave and start crying.”
Needless to say, our hearts sank when we heard this story,
and doubly so because Fred really wears his heart on his sleeve. This is a child
who, at 5, stayed up late at night to tailor each holiday card to his
classmates, writing different messages and choosing a different color ink
depending on what he knew to be the child’s favorite color. Just the other day, he
found out through Jack the name of the kid who had stolen his Pokemon cards recently. When I asked if he’d
confronted the culprit, Fred’s response was, “I don’t know yet if Jack was
supposed to know. So I don’t want to do anything until I find out, because I
don’t want to get Jack in trouble.”
Max and I know this is the stuff of children’s lives, and
that at different points along the way most children will play both victim and
victimizer until they learn to be more self-aware, compassionate and assertive. For all
the times I have been the dedicated friend, I shamefully admit that I, too, had
played the part of the cold rejecting friend.
I had not developed good friendship skills until – yes – my 30s.
It took me three decades to learn how to be a friend, how to balance my own
needs with the needs of others, how to handle the more intense and honest
feelings that naturally arise when intimacy is reached, how to brush off the older, accummulated feelings of rejection that stayed a part of me even into adulthood.
I am grateful that my dearest friendships have survived
those trials. Getting smarter and happier translated into having similar-minded people in my own life. By the time Fred came along, I could present a better model of a friend to him. Max and I have an open door policy when it comes to Fred’s friends, and we rank socializing right up there with studying hard in school.
But the pleasant times of friendships are the easy part; can
we do as well teaching Fred how to navigate his relationships when he is
confronted with rejection and conflict, especially when the idea of our baby being
hurt threatens to blur all rational thinking? I had to consciously hold myself
back from coming down hard on Fred’s friends when we were discussing this at
the dinner table. It was so easy for me to point fingers, too tempting to tell Fred to find other friends who could better appreciate
him. “Well, why don’t you tell them how you feel?”, I did finally manage to say, choosing the high road over the emotional and over-protective one and, perhaps, the more painful ones that I’ve already walked in the past.
Fred listened to us attentively while alternating feelings
of hurt and indignation. Yes, the kids were mean. Yeah, Jack might be “smart at
math but he’s not smart at human nature!” And yes, Fred certainly has many
other friends besides these two.
“But,” he said, “I haven’t given up.”
Of course. You don’t give up when you love
your friends…nor should I, on these children who are just trying to figure relationships out for the first time. Maybe this little guy doesn’t need too much coaching from us after all.
Have you already had to deal with your children’s friendship troubles? Any advice? How have you grown as a friend?