I’m watching my son Gerry with one of his best friends. They are sitting on the swings in the backyard, reading a Star Wars book together. At their feet are the toy lightsabers that they have been playing with for over an hour.
We’ve been talking a lot about friends in our house. Specifically, how do you make new friends?
Gerry and his friend have been best buddies since preschool. They live around the corner from us and since the age of four they have been in the same class together, including this year. They have similar personalities, interests and senses of humor. They even look a little alike. When his friend was interested in Transformers, Gerry got interested in Transformers. When his friend started playing Lego Star Wars on the Wii, Gerry asked for it as a birthday present. Everything that his friend liked, Gerry liked.
Until recently. Their interests have started to diverge a bit. Gerry’s friend is a huge fan of Harry Potter, wizard stories and magic. Gerry, much like his father, isn’t really interested in those things. His tastes run more in the science fiction/detective genre – movies like Star Wars and books like Encyclopedia Brown and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Gerry’s friend met some new kids this year in third grade who liked wizardry as much as he did, and because Gerry didn’t role with the Harry Potter crowd, he was feeling a bit left out.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this until one day in the car he told me he wanted to make a movie called “Three”. When I asked him what that meant, he said it’s because he feels like he’s three different people – one person with his friends who like imagination games, one person when he’s playing sports, and one person at home.
Pretty astute for a eight year old.
It got me thinking about friends in general, and at what point do we begin to compartmentalize our friends into different groups.
At Howie’s age in preschool, the teachers say that everyone is your “friend”. The kids are taught to be respectful of one another and that everyone should play together and get along. The concept of course is great – that no matter what we treat each other with kindness at the block table and during snack time. For Howie in particular, this is important. He’s lacking the ability to understand how to walk up to a group of kids and ask to play with them, and misses the social cues needed for appropriate game playing and sharing, so he uses social stories and scripts to help him join in.
But at some point, most kids start to realize that not everyone is your friend. Maybe it starts along gender lines. Maybe then common interests start to bond – whether it’s a love of baseball or Legos or Star Wars (if all three could be combined I think my house might explode). And some kids, for better or worse, just aren’t that nice to everyone else. Most kids start to realize that not everyone has to be your best buddy.
I say most kids here because this is a big fear of mine for Howie. He’s getting conditioned to believe that all kids are your friends, when at some point, there will be kids who won’t treat him well because he’s different. I don’t know if he’ll have the understanding to know when kids are treating him poorly, or telling him to do things that he shouldn’t do in the name of “friendship”. At some point, the social script has to change. I just don’t know when that happens.
I’ve been talking a lot about this with Gerry as he struggled with the fact that this best friend of his was going off with other kids. I reminded him that even though his friend had made new friends, it didn’t mean that their friendship was over. I told him it was a great opportunity for him to try to make new friends himself – to seek out others who loved Star Wars as much as he did. We did a little role playing about how to talk to another boy in their class who he thought seemed nice, and I even bribed him a bit by offering to let him watch Star Wars: Episode One if he talked to this other boy at snack time.
The whole conversation had me thinking about my own friends and if I have my group of “three”. I have friends who have kids the same age as mine so we talk about homework, and baseball practice and after school activities. I have friends who have kids on the spectrum like Howie and we share stories, struggles and IEP meeting strategies. And there’s the third group of friends – the people who have known me forever – the type of friend that you might not see for a year but the moment you’re together it’s like you just saw each other yesterday. The type of friend that you can sit on a bench together in Rockefeller Center and just…be. I rely on all of these friends to get me through the day, and without them, I’d be lost.
So I get where Gerry is coming from on this. When one piece of that friend puzzle feels like it’s pulling away, it can make you feel a bit out of sorts.
It’s five o’clock and I have to tell the boys it’s time for their get together to end. They both look at me with those annoyed faces that eight year olds make. They’ve recently found their way back to each other – putting aside their diverging interests to get back to just playing. I watch them get on their scooters as they head to the end of our street, where they will separate : Gerry back to our house, and his friend to his house around the corner. About two strides in, they take off, racing each other and laughing so loudly I can hear them through the closed window. They are two best buddies, having fun just…being.
Everyone deserves to have that one friend that you can always count on to be there for you no matter what. Of all the things that I wish for my kids, the most important one for me is that they are a good friend. If Howie can find just that one person that he clicks with – that understands him and likes him, quirks and all – I’ll be happy. And as I watch Gerry and his friend wave goodbye to each other, I know that for him, that wish has already come true.
(This post is dedicated to a very special friend of mine – the one person who understands the depths of my love for food that turns your fingers orange and who has always let me be just me. I am thinking of her tonight…)
“Why can’t we be friends
Why can’t we be friends
Why can’t we be friends
Why can’t we be friends” – Why Can’t We Be Friends by War