If you ask me how to measure the amount of space you take up in someone’s life, I will tell you this.
When it comes to navigating friends and interpreting friendships, you and I are similar in many ways. You lean toward wanting just a small number of very close friends that do everything together, but right now you fight against that preference and tend to a number of friendships of varying degree. It’s a survival tactic, if nothing else, and one I recommended early in your school years, knowing full well how fickle friends and friendships can be during these and the coming years.
And yet I realized something the other day, a design flaw of sorts in some of these more tenuous relationships. More surprisingly, you did too. I heard it because my ears were pricked by something you said in passing. I was probably already primed because I’d recently experienced something very similar myself. I think you are on the cusp of calling bullshit on this notion of being “good enough” to fill a room for someone’s party but not much else.
It hurts to feel used and not otherwise regarded as important enough to connect on more regular, intimate levels. Some people really are satisfied with just being invited in the first place and are happy to go. Does this happen because of some fear of missing out or a deep need to feel liked? I’m not sure. But I am not like those people and so right or wrong—and despite knowing that life is always full of people along the spectrum between acquaintance and confidant—I bristle when it happens to me. I don’t just want to fill a room. I want to fill someone’s life.
You seem to be walking in this direction too, and whether that’s because of nature or nurture, I am not sure. But the difference here is that I am forty-two and you are not yet even nine years old. I know how to manage my feelings of being “good enough” for some things but not others. I can measure the long-term impact of me saying yes or saying no. I can reconcile my own relationship preferences with the set of realistic expectations that society (or someone else) has implicitly written. You are not quite there yet.
The truth is, I’m uncertain how to navigate this terrain with you. There is a narrow path on the map of raising a child that all parents must traverse, and on either side are sharp objects ready to stab and pierce the tenderness of the children we love. Do I just cut to the chase and tell you life’s lessons or do I let you figure things out for yourself? Do I hand you jagged slabs of jade or stand by helplessly and watch the scars form on your heart? I know that at best I can only give you the tools you might need as we steady on together, with me sometimes veering too close to one side or another or falling off altogether.
With that in mind, I give you another tool. Envision a two-pan balance scale. Use it to measure the space you fill in someone else’s life and how much they fill yours. Then listen. If you hear clanging on the other side, heavy and banging the table with all that you’ve offered or given while your pan silently sways high off the table near empty, you might need to adjust the weights in the other pan. Only you will know how much noise you can bear to hear, how much balance you need. Over time, friendships can sometimes become unbalanced and need to be recalibrated. But perhaps the most difficult thing to discover, the part you are now starting to learn, is that sometimes it was never balanced to begin with. So here’s the key to remember: you can only control what you put in or take out of the other side. Don’t expect the sides to be perfectly even and level, but neither should it hurt your ears. Or your heart.
A relevant aside: I wrote this post a few days ago, and I just now finished reading the chapter “The Shifting Sands of Friendship” in Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s new book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. It was so completely enlightening to me in several ways, both in how friends and friendships apply to me personally right now in my early 40s, as well as some sobering news that is likely very relevant to some people close to me. I am still reading the book (not in order) and will report on it in my usual end-of-the-month fashion, but if you are in midlife, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this book and zeroing in on that particular chapter.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
You forget, really, once your child starts attending school or being dropped off at friends’ houses that they spend so much more time independently of you. You forget that they are increasingly traversing the uncertain and sometimes rocky terrain of friendships and, unfortunately, the more treacherous areas where the poison berries grow too. You forget that once you let go of that pink mittened hand in the morning, and kiss that sweet nose that peeks out just above her scarf, that for the next six hours or so she will go it alone. You forget that there are going to be times when it seems like she can’t find the trail markers, but she really doesn’t need the map just yet. Her internal compass gives her a good sense of direction. She won’t let herself wander too far. She knows when to ask for help.
Or at least I forgot. Though I was reminded earlier this week.
At my daughter’s school, the children play outside before the bell rings, so long as it’s above 20 degrees. Many of us parents hang around during that time too, to catch up and just enjoy those final morning moments watching our young children play with their friends. I am one of those parents who stays.
For the first few months of school, M had a trusted friend that she met up with every morning before school started. They conquered the monkey bars together. Sometimes they just stared at each other with silly smiles. Peas in a pod, those two. Sadly, that friend moved away around Christmas time. Then winter break happened, and lots of cold weather after the break forced the children inside the gym before classes started. Parents aren’t allowed to hang out when the children are inside because it is too crowded. So, it’s been a while since I’ve seen how M now handles her mornings without her friend there.
On Monday, it was warm enough for the children to play outside in the morning. I kissed her and off she went to find a friend to hang out with. She still struggles with the initiation part of this kind of thing. But she found a friend that she really likes and they were talking, in that awkward but tender way that six year old girls do. Then another classmate came along. I thought I was imagining it at first, but after seeing it unfold repeatedly for more than a few minutes, I knew it was happening. This other classmate (who is significantly taller than M) was physically moving in a way to block M from talking with the friend she had found. It wasn’t even subtle. And M just kept shifting around to try and stay in the mini-circle among their three bodies. I could tell that M wasn’t really aware of what that classmate was trying to do. Then the bell rang and they lined up.
It took all of my willpower to not walk over to that classmate and tell her to stop doing that to my child. She wasn’t in any physical danger, so I just stayed on the sidelines, watching my daughter essentially be forced out of something unwillingly. It is so hard to see that happen in front of you. But, I told myself, she has handled many other mornings in the gym without me (and, insofar as I know, without incident; thankfully M is usually one to tell me when someone is not being kind), so don’t interfere right now. I told myself that I don’t want to undermine her ability to work these things out for herself, or take away any confidence or assertiveness she may be developing at her own pace.
I’ll be honest: I fumed inside for the greater part of that morning after I left the school yard.
When I picked her up later that day, I casually mentioned what I had observed. She replied that the classmate was trying to tell a secret to her friend and told M she couldn’t listen. (The classmate wanted to know if the other girl wanted to talk about boys, no less…already? In Kindergarten? I’m so not prepared for this.) I asked her how she felt about that. She replied that it didn’t bother her. I could sense that she really didn’t think it was a big deal (she said she had no interest in talking about boys anyway), so I largely let it go, but reminded her that she doesn’t have to put up with the bad behavior of others like that. I told her that she is absolutely allowed to tell someone to stop crowding her out or trying to tell secrets in front of her, and should if she wants to. She assured me that she would. She told me not to worry about it.
And so, for now, I won’t. Though I am sensing that M is not likely in the more extroverted, crowd-loving, assertive camp of children, I’m taking a breath and letting her decide when she needs some more advice or assistance from me. I remind myself that good mama bears must let their cubs take chances and be exposed to risks and dangerous situations if they ever want to see them thrive on their own. Mama bears make sure their cubs know the way back to the den, but they also let them wander. They show them how to find the fruit that is sweet and stay away from the berries that might hurt them. At some point, however, the cubs need to test these things on their own. It is the only way that they learn. Indeed, it is essential for their survival when they are eventually fully out of our view.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
The other night, right before I was about to head out the door to meet my neighbor for our weekly four mile walk, my daughter suggested to me that I take along a pair of gloves. There was a chill in the approaching New England dusk, so her advice was wise. But right after her suggestion, she added,
“You know, in case you and Abby* want to hold hands, your hands won’t be cold.”
After I conjured up a six year old’s way of thinking, I immediately understood what she was talking about. The sweetness of it brought tears to my eyes.
She genuinely thought that when I went walking with my female neighbor/friend, that we held hands. Just like she does with her own friends. The innocence of that assumption took my breath away.
It got me to thinking about children and holding hands. At first, we hold their hands to protect them from running off into the street or to help them keep pace while walking or just to keep them close to us. Of course, we also do it as a show of affection. But over time, and especially as they approach the ages of six and beyond, the need for holding hands to prevent wayward jaywalking diminishes sharply. Whatever is left—which, I’m finding, largely depends not only on the mood, but the child herself—is really just for comfort and affection.
M has always been a hand holder, and, at times, incessantly so. She loves to hold hands, both with us and with her friends, especially the girls. She is, almost always, the initiator. Sometimes it surprises me that she still wants to hold my hand in the mornings on the walk to school. I relish every day of it. I see the evidence before me in the older kids that it is not going to last forever.
Not all of her friends share her love of holding hands, but several do. I love to watch it happen. I think it is a magical sweetness that is so utterly pure and comes wholly from a place of love, comfort and friendship. I caught a glimpse of it in the spring concert when she laced her fingers with the girl next to her on the risers on stage. M swelled with the excitement of singing and found comfort before the large crowd in the warm grip of the friend next to her.
Just last week, I swooned as I watched her find security in the palm of a friend while they explored together the K-2 fall dance in the school gym, usually an overwhelming situation for M on her own (or even with us). They galloped hand in hand through the crowd, their joy and exuberance connected. This is what she thinks friends should do. This is was what informed her suggestion for my walk that chilly night.
I consider myself lucky that she still loves holding our hands. It is the one part of her that still feels small to me, though that is changing I know.
This photo was taken at the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton, MA, a property of the Trustees of Reservations. It’s a great place to take kids on a woodland walk, and to hold hands.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
* Not her real name
I remember when M was just about a year old, maybe even a bit after that, she started to become attached to one or two of her “loveys”. Initially, it was “Blue Kitty” and “Pink Bunny”. Blue Kitty is a stuffed knit striped, light blue cat, and Pink Bunny is one of those fleecy head on a handkerchief kinds of thing that is geared toward babies. The connection between M and her loveys was certainly gradual and later than some of her peers. OK, maybe even a bit forced on my part as I tried to get her to have something to cling to as I left her behind at daycare crying.
But eventually, she consistently sought them out, took them to daycare and slept with them at night, particularly more so after M started the night off in her own bed rather than ours. By some stroke of luck, we only managed to leave the loveys at school overnight one time. When you leave a lovey behind and cannot get to it until the next day, you quickly learn not to do it again!
Then, for the past year or so, up until around when M turned five, she “adopted” a few more animals from within her menagerie. They had always been around since she was crawling, but were not really ones she took a shine to. Then, almost as if for no apparent reason, she decided that “Jello” (which is the name she gave a Nut Brown Hare bunny she owned since she was an infant) was in, and Blue Kitty was out. Pink Bunny always seemed to hold top
dog bunny status, and was the first thing she asked for when the tears began.
I never worried about whether she’d end up like Kenny in Mr. Mom with his Woobie. I figured that she’d end the attachment when the time was right, or never at all (I remember some college friends bringing their “woobies” to the dorm life!). It just always made me happy that she could at least feel somewhat secure with those stuffed blobs of love when we were apart or my hugs were not enough.
But it dawned on me the other day that they’re no longer the ones she turns to. Not in bed with her. Not what she brings to preschool. Not even what she asks for when something’s got her distressed.
When did that happen? And, more importantly, why? This I wonder about. Yes, at the age of five, emotions tend to be a little more manageable (for both of us!), if not even-keeled, so the actual need for loveys has probably diminished somewhat. I haven’t really paid attention to the lovey status of her peers, so is it something that is age-appropriate? Is she afraid of feeling like a “baby”? Part of me secretly wishes, no.
What I don’t wonder about, however, is what has taken the place of these fleecy remnants of her babyhood. That answer is easy: Lily.
Lily is a gift from M’s gramma after a 5th birthday outing to the American Girl Doll store for lunch. That means she’s only been in our lives for about 3 months now, but there are times where I feel like she’s been here forever. This is because M treats her, talks to her and talks about her like an idealistic sibling. She’s not soft and cuddly by any stretch, but there is something about Lily that has M smitten.
Incidentally, when you only have one child and that’s all you’re going to have, you tend to second guess yourself about whether the behavior your child is exhibiting is directly related to her one-ness. Is she obsessed with Lily because she’s lonely? Are we terrible for not “giving” her a sibling? Would she be this attached to a human-like plaything if she had a brother or sister around? It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m starting to let go of this unproductive thought process more and more.
But Lily really is almost like having a second child around the house. We have to remember to get her dressed in the mornings. And at night. Oh, the wrath I heard one morning when M discovered that I had forgotten to put Lily in PJ’s before bed! I think it was my lapse that motivated M to finally learn how to get Lily dressed completely all by herself. We take Lily everywhere. Much to my surprise, M’s teacher doesn’t even mind Lily coming to school, though she must stay on the shelf except during rest time (apparently there is a whole trend now with other girls bringing their version of “Lily” too…and all of them look as
bedraggled well-loved as Lily). Lily is sometimes dealt a hand in a game of Go Fish or gets a pawn in Candyland. M and Lily can spend up to two hours just playing on their own. Lily even has complicated thoughts and opinions, as told to us by M. She has given M confidence in some social situations that I think she otherwise might have turned inward and gone quiet.
It’s this particular point of M not needing the soft cuddly things or me as much either that has me feeling both happy that she’s becoming independent, yet slightly bittersweet that the apron strings have loosened a bit more. Sure she still seeks me out for affection and household companionship, but she really does look to Lily for more of these things it seems. Wisps of yarn and fleece are no longer the answer. Isn’t this what I always wanted? More time to myself? Not having to address M’s needs on an endless basis? Before Lily came along, I surely thought so. Now, it seems, I am having mixed emotions about it because of what this transition to another kind of inanimate object represents about her growing up. All normal feelings, I’m sure.
So, as I wonder about where to put Blue Kitty, Jello and Pink Bunny for safekeeping, my thoughts wander about who or what will eventually replace Lily, and when. School friends, I’m sure. That’s less than a year away. I think that will be a harder pill to swallow, when another sweet child becomes her companion and confidant, rather than Lily or me.
Copyright (c) 2012 Kristen M. Ploetz
For a few months now, M has been preoccupied with two things on her preschool days: 1) how she looks and 2) whether her “best” friend is going to be there. Her “best” friend (let’s call her Besty) only attends two of the four days that M goes to school. And I’ve noticed that it is more important to M how she looks or what she wears on the Besty days. This may be because right now her classroom is very boy heavy, and M and Besty are the only two girls over the age of 4 in her section. So I wonder if this is just where M finds some common ground in a way that she can’t with the boys, who look at her like she has three heads when she announces a new pair of pink, sparkly sneakers.
But I think there’s slightly more to it than that. It seems as though M’s using her appearance as a means to acceptance. There have been tears occasionally if certain outfits (always the pink ones, of course) of M’s are not clean on a Besty day. M usually asks me if she looks beautiful after she gets dressed. She came home wailing when another girl (not Besty) told her that she was ugly. I have to admit that I did not expect to enter this kind of territory so early. And after reading this article about how some teens are turning to the Internet to ask for public opinion about whether they are ugly, I can’t help but be at least mildly concerned that we, as a society, still place way too much importance on looks, especially for girls. I’m not entirely sure where it’s coming from since we’ve kept her from media that makes these suggestions, and I am certainly no fashion dynasty. But somehow it has creeped in.
Perhaps it’s just been my own experience, but I do seem to notice adults referencing how little girls look more so than they do with boys. I know I have to make a conscious effort to give alternative types of compliments, like if she tells a funny joke or asks an interesting question while we’re reading a book. But then other times, well, sometimes she and other kids just are really cute or pretty or handsome. Like when her blue eyes are just really stunning in certain light. How can I not say that, or expect others not to? Tightrope conundrum.
The funny thing is, Besty does not seem to be a girl all that concerned about fashion or it being a benchmark for friendship or acceptance. In fact, she’s just a down to earth and outgoing young girl. I think the attraction for M is that Besty has personality traits that M is struggling to bring out in herself and finds confidence in being around her. But M attaches herself to Besty like velcro, and I have heard tales of woe on days where Besty just wants to play with someone else for a bit. I try to explain to M that sometimes people just need a break or want to try new things with other people, and that’s OK. But for a young girl who clearly idolizes Besty, I’m not sure that that’s any good advice.
The school is doing a good job of teaching all of the kids that there’s no “best” friends and that they can all be friends and play with many kids. They’ve had to resort to this because there were a couple little mini-cliques forming, and it was creating problems on days where one kid’s “best” friend was absent or when kids (including M—I never said she was a saint) were excluding other kids from playing something because they were not one of the “best” friends. While on some level I think it’s unfair to require mandatory friendships (as opposed to learning how to coexist peacefully) because sometimes Billy would rather not play with Johnny in the water table because he just doesn’t click with him, in a class of ten very young students, their “no besties” approach is probably the only way to keep the peace and not let certain kids become marginalized. So, we talked to M about why it’s not nice to exclude people, that there’s usually always a way to include an additional person to play, and used examples of how it feels to be rejected from her own classroom dramas that she tells us about. From what we’ve heard from her teachers, our talk with her worked and M’s already making strides and has helped to bridge gaps between various groups in the classroom and making sure everyone is included.
Needless to say I think M is ready for the pitfalls of high school. Or the United Nations.
I guess it is the looks part of it all that has me the most preoccupied. I am not sure at what age, if ever, kids really understand that it is not what is on the outside that makes someone worthy of friendship, but I suspect it’s much later than what I’d like it to be. And while I want her to feel like she fits in, I don’t think buying 500 sparkly pink shirts and skirts is the answer because that cuts against the grain of some other core family values we have. I just have to keep telling myself that it’s just preschool, and that as she goes on through the years she will have more opportunities to develop more friendships that are based on cultivated relationships with a wider variety of people, no matter what she’s wearing.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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