It was a feeling I had never experienced before. A pit in my stomach—one of those agonizing stomachaches that only a parent can feel—and I didn’t know what to do.
I was driving home from my son’s parent-teacher conference. And I was sobbing after hearing what his teacher said.
He’s a great kid, she said. Never gives me any trouble.
He’s kind, helpful, gets his work done…
I nodded along, expecting this report, as he’d always been incredibly well-behaved at school and at home.
But socially… and that’s when she paused.
And I was unprepared for what she was going to say next, although in hindsight, it all made sense. We’d recently moved from another district. In his old school, my son was confident, outgoing, and a natural leader. He was the kid chosen to represent his grade on leadership day. He had a big part in the play. He wasn’t shy, and seemed to love school. He had friends, but looking back, I realized something I’d never really noticed before—there were only a couple. We’d never had a real birthday party for him. And if those two friends were busy, he played alone or with his siblings.
I never thought much of it, and my son seemed perfectly content having only one or two good buddies.
When we moved, we weren’t worried about him. He’s so confident! So outgoing! Such a leader! He’ll be fine, we thought.
And I thought everything was fine, until well into the school year. I was sitting across a table from his teacher who said something that cut me to my core.
He doesn’t play with anyone at recess. He sits alone at lunch.
My son didn’t have any real friends. And I had no idea. Why didn’t I see this coming?
And then I saw it all play out in my mind. In his old school, his one or two friends had known him since they were toddlers. They grew up around him, accepting his quirks, loving him for him. They didn’t judge and he was automatically accepted into their lives.
But now he was the new kid. And he’s different. Which is the worst possible recipe for friend-making.
As a toddler, my son was quieter than other kids. While other 2- and 3-year-olds ran around, playing chase and fighting over trains and matchbox cars, my son would sit in the middle of the chaos and read. For hours.
He’s also brilliant. He taught himself to read at 2 1/2. He read the entire Harry Potter series in kindergarten and by age 5 was doing algebra for fun.
And, to add even more to the mix, he’s very rigid. He struggles when others don’t follow rules or routines. He’s very disciplined and expects that of his peers—peers who still want to run amok, talk out of turn, and roughhouse. He’d rather play a 4-hour long board game or code on the computer than wrestle in the backyard.
So when he showed up as the new kid in class and started speaking like a college professor who did logic problems at recess, the other kids ran in the opposite direction. No one knew how to relate to him. No one knew how to play with him. And as his mom, I was heartbroken that I had no idea this was going on every day.
It was one of the most painful moments of my parenting journey, and I was unsure of what to do next. How much do I intervene? Do I push him to make friends? Do I keep saying “Be yourself!” if other kids weren’t accepting him for simply being himself? Do I encourage him to step outside that comfortable zone of “being himself” and maybe try new things? Maybe try kickball on recess? Or ask some kids if he could sit with them at lunch?
Because the truth is, my kid is amazing. He’s funny and clever and kind. He’s responsible, always offers to help others, and is a loving brother. I would not change one single thing about him—not even his obsession with 4-hour board games that make me want to pour hot wax into my eyeballs.
That conversation with his teacher left me asking myself, how do I find a kid or two who might get him and love him and accept him, quirks and all? How do I teach him to stay true to who he is and not follow the crowd, but at the same time be willing to try new things in the hopes of bridging friendships?
Because that’s the ultimate goal of parenting, isn’t it? We want our kids to be happy. We want them to feel safe. We want them to feel accepted and validated for who they are and not feel like they have to change themselves just to fit in.
But we also want them to have friends. And sometimes that means changing—just a little bit.
Once I had cried all the tears and was able to actually process what my child’s teacher told me, my husband and I hatched a plan. We decided to start by talking to our son about friendship, which classmates he considered “friends,” what made a “good friend,” and what he liked to do at recess. We learned that he did consider a few kids “friends.” We learned that he didn’t want to play sporty games at recess and would rather draw or dream up imaginary worlds or think of cool magic tricks, and none of the other kids seemed to want to do that.
Okay, next step.
We then decided to encourage our very rigid son to do something new—like try kickball. There are two recesses per day, so we made a deal. If he was willing to join in an activity with other kids one recess, he could do whatever he wanted for the other. We also encouraged him to ask some of the kids he thought were his friends if he could sit with them at lunch. We also explained that part of life and growing up is accepting that everyone is different. Some kids are strict rule-followers. Some are not. That doesn’t make them bad kids, and in fact, some of those kids could end up becoming his good friends. We told him that just like he wants the world to accept him for who he is, he also needs to try and accept others as they are too. And finally, we reiterated that although we were encouraging him to try new things, he should never feel pressured to try something he knew was wrong or unsafe.
And guess what? It worked. (Sort of.)
He sits with other kids at lunch now. He had a few buddies to invite for a small birthday party a few months ago (and they all came!). And he still hates kickball. We’ve let up a bit on pestering him with “How was your day? Did you play with other kids?” and now and then we’ll find out that he sat alone at recess and drew pictures. But sometimes he’ll say a friend came and sat next to him to ask about his artwork. And that makes our hearts happy.
I know that my son will never have 20 friends to invite to his birthday. He may go most of the summer without a playdate. And only a few kids really “get” him and enjoy the things he enjoys. But I also know that he’s very comfortable being who he is. He won’t hesitate to go up to a new person at a party or event and ask if they want to see a magic trick or solve a logic puzzle with him. He knows who he is, and I’m pretty sure he likes who is. And as a parent, what more can you ask for?
I believe that as my son grows up, he’ll eventually find his people. There are lots of kids like him—kids who’d rather solve geometry problems over watching a football game. I think they all end up finding their place.