I know that I had friends growing up. I remember in some middle grade of elementary school that my neighbor girl and I, along with a variety of other friends, would sneak small stuffed animals out onto the playground where, under the single large tree in the far corner, we would play with the carefree camaraderie that colors youth. We would sleep over at each other’s houses and spend the mornings mastering curled bangs. In the neighborhood, we would roll up in blankets and careen down hills, or plan elaborate dance performances on one of our concrete patios. Let’s face it. There wasn’t much else to do or worry about in the mid-1980s in suburban America, and if we went home, we would likely be assigned some dreaded chore.
Suddenly, though, I am watching my elementary girls talk less and less about their girlfriends at school, or worse, claim to have no friends at all. Kids clump together on the playground, but many don’t understand my eldest’s penchant for pretend or my middle’s powerful personality. When I ask what they do out there, my girls claim- not much. Where is the carefree play I remember? And without it, where are the simple bonds of friendship that make elementary school memories?
It would be easy to blame technology. Kids are separated by devices so much that they forget how to forge face-to-face friendships. They can talk endlessly on online games like Minecraft, but have nothing to say at a lunch table. They can compare their clothes, toys, bodies, hair to all of the images that inundate them, and then compare those to each other. Yes, I could blame this technological era. I could blame schedules. One- and two-parent homes working day after day without time to run students for playdates. Practices, games, and appointments crowding out fun in the calendar. I could blame all forms of shifts in culture that lead to aloneness. But no matter the reason, I believe our kids today are missing out on the simple importance of friendship, and I want to help them find it.
I can’t police playground politics or create cafeteria conversations that are inclusive, not exclusive. I can’t force playdates or group activities to which these kiddos may or may not come. So what can I do?
I could start by being a better friend. Not a Facebook-stalking, infrequent-texting type of friend, but a true, old-school friend. Why don’t I invite my friends (and their kids) over for coffee on the back porch after school? Why don’t I make those phone calls I remember my mom making that lasted forever and were full of interruptions, but that seemed to make her so happy in the middle of the monotony of the everyday? Why don’t I attend groups, Bible studies, book clubs, anything to forge true conversation and connection? As I question myself here, I can see that I, and others who are part of this middle-age parenting club, have changed the friendship scenery for ourselves, and therefore, changed that scenery for our little ones, too.
I can focus on things I can’t control, or I can start with one, or more, of these. Admittedly, I do many things with my kids. I keep them busy. We find fun, but I am not always good about finding friends. I am hesitant to invite over kids I don’t know, because I don’t know how their families feel about playdates, rules, snacks, and the list goes on. Because of our busy schedules, free time is usually a last-minute luxury, and other families are not always available in those spur-of-the-moment situations. I have listed here for my own benefit and hopefully yours a list of ways that we can help nurture friendship within our children:
MODEL FRIENDSHIP: As I said above, we have rewritten the rules of friendship due to social media. With the exception of my sister, who I call every day after school, I rarely talk to friends on the phone or in person. We do get together with other families sometimes (not enough), but I am not great about asking a friend to just stop by. I text, or send notes, but I am not necessarily showing my kids by example how to be a good friend or even how to make friends. And while it is not my natural bent to stand in the pick-up line at school and make small talk, maybe me reaching out to other school moms is just what my kids need to see when they leave those school doors.
FIND FRIENDS: One thing I am going to vow to do this year is to find opportunities, outside of school and sports, to plan events with friends. Simple things, like cookie decorating, backyard bonfires, and game nights, are all opportunities to invite over a friend or two for the girls to forge relationships and create memories.
PRACTICE PLAY: It is clear from some of those playground situations that many kiddos just don’t know how to play outside of structured sports or technology screens. My own children are great pretenders, but admittedly, that is my greatest weakness as a mom of littles…I don’t pretend very well. I start playing backyard veterinarian, but I am quickly bored of all the scenarios we act out. Luckily, we are fortunate enough to have some neighbor kids who love to play pretend with the girls. They often involve costumes and elaborate story lines. It is good to watch these interactions from nearby, and when the kids reach an impasse of opinion, I can offer a voice of reason in the fray. I can also guide their time to be sure they are able to balance everyone’s ideas as well as divide up outside play versus inside play, toys versus technology. Most importantly, parents, is to leave time every day for this practice. Our time is after school until before dinner; we do evening events and sports and errands, but I try to keep that magical hour or two just for the kids to play.
ENCOURAGE INCLUSION: Don’t we all know how hard it is to feel excluded and yet, we can also admit that we can be exclusive? Kids are naturally drawn to certain friends or away from others. Sometimes, other students are not particularly nice to your own. But I am raised from a perspective of “killing with kindness”, and I think it is an important trait to pass on to my kids. I tell the girls repeatedly that they don’t have to be friends with everyone, but they do have to be nice to everyone. If someone asks to play, you find a role for him or her. One of my daughters came home this week saying that when she approached a gaggle of girls on the playground, they simply turned and walked away. How heartbreaking as a mom to hear this. It goes against my constant reminders to her to play with everyone, to accept kids who are different or even at times frustrating. If all students were inclusive, we wouldn’t need buddy benches at school to force children to play together.
I am not a terribly nostalgic person, but I do long for simpler times playing underneath trees. I want my children to be good friends and have good friends. I don’t want my girls, or anyone else’s, swinging alone on the playground watching life from the sidelines. Most of all, I want humanity to desire the connection of friendship and to foster it for future generations.