Well, summer’s over and school has started. I’m back to waking up early, driving carpools, making lunches, helping with homework, and my all-time favorite, worrying about my kids’ social lives.
As a mom to both a boy and a girl, I always expected my daughter to be the one to come home upset after school every day. You hear all of those stories about mean girls and queen bees, and you just kind of assume that it’s par for the course. But my daughter’s experience so far has been a piece of cake. There have been moments, of course, but on the whole, she’s got a really nice group of friends, and her grade in general isn’t particularly clique-y or exclusionary.
So it kind of caught me off guard when I realized that my son was having problems finding his niche with the boys at school. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have friends. As far as I can tell, he’s well-liked, and he gets asked for playdates all the time.
No, the problem for my son is finding boys to play with at recess. You see, at our school, during recess, the boys play sports. Flag football, sharks and minnows, basketball, handball, you name it. While my son likes sports – he plays on some kind of a team each season – he just doesn’t live for them the way other boys seem to.
And since my son cherishes those precious minutes of recess where he doesn’t have to be learning or listening or following directions, he’s not about to waste them playing sports.
Instead, he prefers to play pretend games – let’s be ninjas! Let’s be Pokemon! In kindergarten and first grade, he could usually find boys to go along with him. But in second grade, not so much. His friends at school just aren’t into it anymore. So my son went out and made new friends, who are into it.
The only problem is, they’re third grade girls.
A better parent would have been thrilled that he had found kids to play with who share his interests. A better parent would have been thrilled that he didn’t give in to peer pressure and start playing games that he didn’t really enjoy. But I’ll admit that instead of being thrilled, I panicked. Rather than any kind of rational thought process, I experienced more of a stream of consciousness jumble of fears, along the lines of oh, my God, he’s going to get teased, the other boys will think he’s weird, he’ll become an outcast, he’ll either have to switch schools or suck it up until he can make a fresh start in seventh grade. I’m not proud of it, but it’s where my mind went. It didn’t help, either, when my daughter came to me in private and said that she, too, was concerned that he was going to get made fun of if he continued to play with third grade girls every day.
So I took my son aside, and, as diplomatically as possible, I told him that I wanted to talk to him about recess. I explained that I was worried that he wasn’t playing with his second grade friends anymore. I explained that sometimes, if you don’t play with kids for a while, when you go back and try to play with them later on, they might not let you. And I explained that there would be days when his “older friends,” as he calls them, might be on field trips, or sick, and that I was worried that on those days, he might find himself in a situation where he would have nobody to play with. No, he argued, the boys in my grade are nice. They would never do that to me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that kids aren’t always nice. The look on his face made me regret that I’d said anything at all.
The next day, I didn’t ask about recess at all, but at bath time he gave me a look. You scared me, he said, when you told me that my friends might not play with me. So I asked them today at school. And they said that I can come back and play with them any time I want. Even if it’s not until next year. But even if they don’t, I’ll just find new kids to play with.
So here’s what I realized. I’ve always said that I want my children to be their own people, and not to conform to whatever everyone else does. But at the first sign of nonconformity, I totally freaked out. And it took a seven year-old to put me in my place. What my son was saying to me was that I need trust that he’s making choices that are right for him. And that whatever the consequences are, they can’t be worse than spending your childhood trying to be someone you’re not.