Firstly, let’s set our intention. One possibility: we dedicate this writing/reading to loving the world as it is (and aligning with it) in the service of a specific child, or children, that you the reader now consciously choose.
Individuation, or growing “up” toward recognition of all the parts of ourselves, hinges on feeling solid enough within ourselves to explore our world and encounter others with a sense of security, friendliness, curiosity and good cheer.
If we are two years old, and feel safe enough, we will venture forth from our mom’s leg and check out the sand-box. And we will run back and “touch base” again and again until we come to deeply trust that our safe place is now in our heart, and not only in our mom’s leg. When we are safe and secure (and old enough) we let go of blankie or teddy, we transition from attaching to “objects” to interfacing more and more with real others.
Some kids are naturals at making friends, others need a bit of coaching. You know your child and their developmental level, so you can translate the following ideas into words that they can make use of… but our central approach is to commit to learning and growing through our relationships with our children (and each other). In other words, if we want our kids to expand their trust and ways of thinking, we must expand our trust and ways of thinking.
With regard to making friends, whether we are four or forty, when we are nervous and self-conscious we focus on ourselves, while making friends requires just the opposite—being interested in others—and being willing to play what others want to play. [and it that spirit, remember to send me your questions and I will try to make this blog about your truest concerns].
One key way to initially teach interest in others, is to consistently be interested in our child, in what they have to say and what they feel. Attention to children is like water to plants (and our most powerful reinforcer of behavior; so don’t pay lots of attention when they act out and ignore them when they are “good,” as in low-maintenance). Attention paid to our kids models interest in others, but that is only half the task, because our kid may come to think that all they have to do is show up and everyone will be interested in them.
Next is understanding that empathy (the ability to grasp other people’s feelings) does not come very easy to the young brain. It gets much better around six, seven or eight (provided that we are treated with empathy along the way). When kids are hurt or confused, role-playing and letting them be the “mean” or rejecting kid lets you offer different potential responses (i.e. “that hurt my feelings, I just wanted to join in the game,”), but it also lets your child be in the other kid’s shoes and, often, to intuit how they felt annoyed or hurt too).
Note that if we parents happened to grow up with less than optimal interest and empathy, giving what we didn’t get to our children, can sting more than a little, but is nonetheless a powerful way to heal and transform a painful past into a wonderful present. It’s also good to keep in mind that under stress, we all tend to regress (even as parents) and can momentarily lose our empathy along with our patience.
Next comes better understanding of the fragility of groups on playgrounds (and around office water-coolers, carpool line clusters, etc.). Pretend play in particular is quite delicate, and so the four or five-year-old who wants to enter into a game of pretend family, or pretend warriors, must grasp the game and enter in character. The child who blunders in, trying to change three or four kids over to a game that they themselves prefer, will be rejected—mostly because they have threatened to destroy the unseen thing of beauty that the kids have already created with their imaginations. Some kids just naturally get this, others benefit from an “explanation” (and a great way to “explain” concepts to young kids is to make up stories, i.e. there was a squirrel who tried to join a group of kids who were playing a game of tag. When she said that the other kids should play kick-ball, they didn’t let her play and she was sad. The next day she decided to play what they were playing, and they let her, and she was happy. The third day she suggested kick-ball, after a game of tag, and taught the other kids how to play. After that, kick-ball was part of their play, and so was tag, and they lived happily ever after). With kids under six or seven, keep it simple and don’t be afraid to be right-on-the-money obvious with these sorts of stories (and remember that they may seem precocious in the afternoon, but at bedtime everything softens and even a twenty-year-old might not fight you on a soothing story).
When our kids are little, it is a great act of kindness to facilitate play-dates (and to know that the first two, three or five may not be that great, but bonds form over time and it serves to stay with it).
Finally, keep in mind that even introverts like to have friends. It’s just that for every minute they spend with them, they need two minutes alone later to recover (or at least re-establish their center). So, be sure to let introverted and sensitive kids in particular have time to chill and be quiet after school (and understand that their fussiness after school may partly derive from having had to hold it together all day at school).
We are not our kids, and one place where things can get particularly difficult is when an extraverted parent is parenting an introverted child; often they just don’t really understand why socializing is so hard for that child. Trying to find our way into the shoes of our child (literally imagining being their size, with their brain and their situation) can do a lot to restore calm and equanimity to a child who feels overwhelmed and unsuccessful (i.e. feels they are a loser and a disappointment just because they struggle with something, in this case making friends).
Another trouble arena is when our child triggers memories (often unconscious) of our own past. Say you had no friends in middle school and felt traumatized and left out at that time in life; when your child goes to middle school, your own anxiety about not wanting them to feel what you felt can provoke you to be overly worried, which sends a discomfiting message to your child. Thus over-identifying with our child is just as problematic as not identifying with them at all.
As children mature, into elementary and middle schools, if they turn out not to be natural socializers, it may help to gently suggest that eye contact (although awkward for some children to sustain) is a great way of showing others that we are interested in them. Kids who don’t know this need to be taught (and can practice making eye-contact with you, their parent). Also, learning to ask questions (i.e. How are you? What have you been doing?) is another good way of showing interest—one that is not always self-evident to kids who struggle with shyness, self-esteem issues or anxiety.
Finally (at least for this blog), always keep in mind that people (at any age) who truly feel good about themselves are generally kind. Therefore, any time your child experiences the slings and arrows of outrageous social misfortune (and lord knows every slight to the shy or insecure child is potentially a Shakespearean tragedy) it serves to compassionately remind that splendid spirit who is our child: people who feel good about themselves are kind, the child (or grown-up) who is mean must not be feeling good about themselves at this or that moment.
It’s cool to be kind! Namaste, Bruce