For the first four years of my son’s life, he happily played with a built in-group of friends: kids of our friends, a network of cousins and a very small crew of daycare buddies. He was happy; we were happy. And then he entered preschool.
We stood by as he negotiated the land of preexisting friendships, kids who knew each other from older siblings or an earlier year of preschool. He played quietly by himself next to groups of laughing little boys. He watched other kids running from station to station, their hands locked together. After school let out, he ran or explored on his own in the outside courtyard, giraffe backpack over his shoulders, as a raucous group of kids jumped and played together nearby. He often would try to join in the fun but always seemed to end up alone.
His teachers assured us that friendships would come with time. And as the holiday season approached, it seemed he was making headway with a few kids. We had some play dates. I relaxed a bit, and my fear of our siblingless child being friendless as well ebbed.
And then I noticed one of his buddies didn’t seem as excited to see him. The little boy ignored my son’s greeting at preschool. And then he didn’t want my son to play in his car as his mom and I chatted after pickup. So I asked my son what had happened.
“He said I was mean. He said we wouldn’t be friends anymore.”
There it was. My fear came roaring back. I asked the little boy’s mom if she knew what had happened. After some questioning, I learned that my son had hit her son following a tussle with a toy, prompting the little boy’s justified response. My son had been mean.
Every irrational fear I’ve had about having an only child came roaring to the surface. What if my kid is a jerk? What if no one likes him? What if he never has any friends? What if he’s lonely and unhappy? What if? What if? What if? The spiral down was fast and furious.
Deep breath. Deep breath.
I get that he’s four and that friendships will ebb and flow throughout his preschool days. I get that I can’t pin his entire social future on one interaction. And I get that it’s okay if he’s not the extrovert with his new peers that he has been up until now. But I can’t help but feel pain when my beautiful little boy – who is so perfect to me even in his imperfections – isn’t seen to be as beautiful to the outside world. And I can’t help but feel the acute ache of knowing he’ll never have a brother or sister to count among his best and most unconditional friends.
This squabble with my son and his buddy will likely pass and they’ll be back to building castles, playing pirates and general mayhem in a few days. Or maybe they won’t. The truth is, I don’t know whether my son will have great groups of friends. I don’t know if he’ll even want a big social life. I can only hope that he does find a place where he fits and people to laugh, play and share with. But I’m also learning that I can’t sweep in and fix these things for him. I can’t make other kids like him. I can only give him opportunities to learn empathy and kindness and what it means to be a friend, but then it’s up to him to put those skills to work.
I haven’t figured out how I’m going to comfort him when he has these little hurts. Or how we’ll teach him that disappointment and loneliness and vulnerability are natural, even healthy, parts of life. And I certainly haven’t figured out how I’m going to keep my own heart together while seeing his in pieces.
So for now, I’m going to take a few big breaths and remind myself that I don’t need to know these things yet. He’s four. He’s happy. And I’m the one making a mountain out of a meanie.
Experienced mamas: Any advice for how to handle these fears? Just please go easy and be kind. You know, like we want our kids to act.