I have one child who wants to join every activity and be where the people are. All the time. Every day. The most effective consequence we give him for misbehavior is isolation in his room, because not being a part of the fun—wherever the fun may be—is torture for him. He doesn’t play independently. Ever.
And if it were up to him, he’d play baseball along with soccer one season, do basketball and hockey the next, and Cub Scouts year round. And also football. He’s the first kid on the kickball field at recess. Everyone knows his name, and he’s invited to every birthday party.
My daughter isn’t a fan of ball sports, but she’s also very social. When we moved to a new state last year, she was instantly encircled with a sweet group of 1st grade girls and the friendships have blossomed since. She, too, wants to go to all the things. I anticipate that she’ll revel in homecoming dances and football games someday, spending hours deciding what to wear and how to style her hair before meeting up with a loud group of friends who take over my basement on Saturday nights.
Two of my kids are “joiners” and want to do all the things that everyone else is doing. Often, they want to do too much.
My oldest, however, is all set with that.
And while we also envision him as a teenager, having friends over in our basement, it looks less chaotic with him. And probably a much smaller crowd.
Interestingly, our firstborn has never been shy—in fact, he’s the most extroverted, confident kid you’re going to find. He performed in the school talent show every year since kindergarten with zero stage fright and zero hesitation. He’ll walk to up to anyone—adult or kid—and show you a magic trick or tell you a joke.
He just wants to do what he wants to do. If you created a club for kids who love board games, he’d probably be all over that. Or an after school group of kids who enjoyed doing math for fun—yep, that’s his jam.
But only if everyone is calm. And follows the rules. Which, when you’re ten, is hard to come by.
When you’re ten, most of your peers tend to like running around and being loud and competitive. When you’re ten, it’s hard to find a friend willing to choose chess over basketball. So you end up doing your own thing, even if your siblings are playing right outside your window with the neighbors, eating all the chips and drinking all the Gatorade, and you’re inside, doing crossword puzzles or practicing fractions.
Even if it means your life is a little bit quieter and you have fewer boxes marked on the family calendar. He’s perfectly okay with this.
The truth is, my son has so much to offer this world. He’s brilliant, for one. Like reading at two years old, doing multiplication at four, and algebra at five kind of smart. And he’s funny. His brain actually gets puns and riddles, so he makes up some pretty good ones. He’s also a leader. He has never followed the crowd (yay!), which meant that at five, when 19 kindergarteners acted up for a substitute, my child was the lone holdout, sitting in his seat, reading, through the chaos.
But most of all, my son is kind. He jumps up to help with any chore or task around the house without hesitation. He doesn’t talk back, and he helps take care of his younger siblings. He’s a hugger and still takes any opportunity to snuggle with Mom and Dad.
He’s perfect and there’s not one thing I’d change about him.
But the hard part for kids like him is that although they may not want to join big, overwhelming, loud activities or organized sports, they can get lonely. They do still want a buddy, or maybe a small circle of friends to sit with at lunch or hang out with after school. And when you don’t join the “big thing” that everyone else is doing, it can be a little bit harder to make friends.
If you’re in the same boat, here are some tips we’ve found helpful in navigating this path as parents.
1. Ask around.
Literally. Ask your child’s teachers, other parents, neighbors. Where do the kids who like chess hang out? Is there another kid in the neighborhood who likes magic? Who’d choose Battle Ship over dodge ball? Try to get to know the parents and casually drop the idea of your kids playing together. You might need to do some digging so that your child can forge friendships. Once the initial bridge is made, your little bookworm might be starting their own neighborhood book club the next day.
2. Try one-on-one activities or individualized athletics.
Organized sports can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing for some kids. There is so much pressure to perform well and not let the team down, whereas in a sport like swimming, tae kwon do or gymnastics, kids move at their own pace. They compete with themselves, pushing their own limits, setting their own goals. The pressure of being up at the plate with two outs and the game-winning run on third is absent in these other athletic arenas, so your kid might thrive here while getting much-needed exercise.
3. Have low-key play dates.
If your child does find another kid with similar interests, set up a play date or get-together for an hour, maybe two. Set low expectations and see how it goes. Real friendships are natural and organic. If it doesn’t seem like a good fit, that’s okay. You tried, and you’ll keep trying.
4. Make sure your child knows there’s nothing wrong with them.
Not all boys like sports. Or rough-housing. Not all girls like dance. Or Barbies. Your child is exactly who they’re meant to be, and it’s important that they know they’re loved and don’t need to change. Fostering their love—whether it’s robotics or theater or reading good books—sends them the message that you accept them exactly how they are.
5. Ask them what they want and need.
Some kids want more friends. Some are content with the kid next door and that’s it. Some thrive if they’re pushed a little bit to try new things; others shut down completely. The greatest thing we can do for our kids is talk to them and find out what they need. My non-joiner did want to make more friends, and he did want our help in doing so. So we asked around, signed him up for a few activities that fit his interests, and invited a friend over here and there, only after communicating with him every step of the way. Not everything has worked out perfectly, but we keep trying—at his pace.
My son may not play kickball during recess or organized sports year-round like his little brother. And he may not have a gaggle of friends surrounding him all the time like his sister. But he’s pretty awesome just how he is. And if he wants to hang out with me and play Monopoly on Friday nights, well, that sounds pretty good to me too.
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