If you were to ask my 9-year-old son the names of his closet friends, he’d probably say some version of, “All the boys in my class.” And if he ran into a friend from his old preschool, he’d say that kid was his best friend, too. If he saw the boy he became pals with at summer camp, he’d say they were best pals as well. In fact, my son thinks anyone he likes is his close friend. And he means it. Since he was little, a friend meant anyone who liked to play the same kinds of games he did. That was the sum total of qualifications he needed to connect on a deeper level.
I assumed my daughter, who is younger, would be the same.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In preschool, my daughter had one best friend. And when that best friend moved to another city and the two could no longer see each other daily, she still referred to that friend as her bestie. Even a year after her best friend had moved, my daughter still hadn’t made another best friend. That didn’t worry me until it was clear that my daughter had no desire to make a new best friend. She liked everyone in her class, but had no interest in connecting on a deeper level.
This fall, my little one started kindergarten at a new school. She knew a few kids because she was going to her brother’s school, but she didn’t know any kids in her class very well. I was thrilled when the kids in her class got together prior to school starting, and I was overjoyed when the girls began to invite my kiddo over to play. The problem was my daughter channeled her inner “Frozen” and was a total ice queen.
It’s my job to encourage her and push her boundaries, but that doesn’t mean assuming kids aren’t as discerning about friendships as adults are.
The kids were being nice by including my daughter, but she would give them the cold shoulder or just play by herself. I was a bit embarrassed because my daughter’s actually an outgoing and kind kid. But more important, I was worried her new classmates would get the wrong impression and stop trying to be friends.
A few icy play dates later, I decided to intervene. After my daughter made it clear that she did actually like her new classmates, she finally confessed that she was a little shy. She missed her old best friend. And if she had it her way, the two would still hang out every day. I asked her to try with the new kids.
“At least don’t make them work so hard to be your friend,” I said.
We went over suggestions of how to start playing with someone new and even practiced asking a new friend to play. She promised to try to warm up the next time she was asked to play and seemed happy that I had brought it up.
Well sure enough, one of the moms from my daughter’s class invited a group of five girls over for an afternoon, and my daughter jumped right in there. She put herself in the mix and was open to whomever wanted to play with her. I asked her later what made the difference and she said that she remembered her promise to me to try harder and not be so shy. And she stuck to it.
As school began, she made one friend she really liked but was only playing with that friend each day. I worried she’d get into the same rut of connecting with only one person. I’ve had to learn the hard way that you can never have enough friends, even if you know in your heart that one or two of those friends are your best besties. So we made a goal for her to try to get to know everyone in her class, and play with each person at least once.
With every passing school day, she comes home and tells me she’s tried to play with a new friend instead of the same person each day. She and Penelope like to do the monkey bars together, while Karina L. is an expert who shows them how. Taryn has been sick for a whole week so my daughter made her a card. And Erin is my daughter’s favorite new friend, but she’s still not a bestie like her preschool pal.
As I listened to her recount the names and stories of her new friends, my heart filled with joy. I’m proud of her for trying, but I also realized it’s not fair for me to put my expectations of friendship on my child. It’s my job to encourage her and push her boundaries, but that doesn’t mean assuming kids aren’t as discerning about friendships as adults are. Maybe all she needed was one good friend. Far be it from me to tell her that's wrong.
So while I continue to encourage her to make new friends and be open to new people, I stopped pushing her to have her girl squad or crew. Maybe my kid’s version of a squad is just her and one other person. I’m fine with that. Now let's just hope her new squad doesn’t pack up and move.