When you have a little one who has trouble making friends, it can be absolutely heartbreaking. As parents, we want nothing more than for our littles to be accepted by their peers. Especially because we know just how awesome they are.
But friendships for young kids, especially preschoolers and kindergarteners, can be difficult to navigate — for kids and parents. They’re at an age when independence is important, but they’re still our babies so we want to help them and protect them from getting their feelings hurt. In fact, when my son was about to enter preschool, the thing I was worried about the most was his ability to make friends.
Though my son has always been friendly, as an only child who wasn’t constantly around kids his own age, he could have trouble socializing with other kids because it wasn’t something he was used to doing on a regular basis. His excitement to be around other kids and play with them can be overwhelming, and though his intentions are good, he doesn’t always have the best approach. I feared preschool would be similar to all the other times I had to help him socialize — at playdates, at the park, in classes — when he wasn’t able to make friends. Except in preschool, I wouldn’t be around to support him through those encounters.
I tried to find solace in the fact that he was going to be around kids his own age. It was likely that many of them would be in a similar situation socially. Odds were that for most of them, this would be the first time they were consistently around kids their own age without their parents. So at least, if my son was awkward socially, he wouldn’t be the only one. But that certainly didn’t stop me from worrying in the days leading up to him starting school.
On the first day, we were both apprehensive. I tried to size up the other kids in his class. I was looking for the friendly faces of four-year-olds, so I could shelter and protect his sweet little heart, even though I knew I had to let my little bird fly.
Those first few weeks were hard for both of us. The adjustment and transition from being home with me to a classroom of new people was a lot for him. When I’d say, “Time to get ready for school,” he’d have a total meltdown. Crying, pleading with me to let him stay home with me. In my heart I wanted to just say, “Forget it, we’ll try school again next year,” but I knew preschool was the right thing for him.
Then came the day I was dreading — my boy got into a scuffle with one of the other boys over a toy. I was equal parts embarrassed and sad. I wanted so badly for him to just not be like that. I worried that, even though it was a small kerfuffle in the grand scheme of things, it could impact friendships and social interactions for the rest of the year. After all, I wasn’t much older than my son when I encountered my first bully, and all those feelings came back to haunt me.
There were a few more incidents, and I was certain my son would be teased or that no one would want to play with him. I pictured him in his little classroom, sitting by himself while all of the other kids played together happily.
But, that’s not what happened at all. After a few weeks, he told me that the same little boy he initially had friction with was one of his “best” friends. And I tell you, I almost cried.
I realized in that moment that he was growing up. At four/five/six, kids have a better understanding of how interactions with their peers work. They can see “Oh, if I play nicely with this person, they will want to continue to play with me.” You can sit down with them and really talk about what it means to be a friend, and how their actions can make someone not want to be their friend.
Starting school for the first time is really hard for both kids and their parents. We parents are letting our babies go for the first time, and our kids are realizing for the first time that mommy and/or daddy won’t always be there to fix everything. They’re having to make compromises they’ve never had to make before; there are other people whose needs may be more important than theirs when they’re used to getting more attention.
Making friends is a tricky thing for us to do as adults; we tend to remember it as being so much easier as kids. But for some kids, making friends isn’t easy at all. For kids with social anxiety or emotional or developmental delays, they may not be capable of just walking up to a kid and saying, “Hi, do you want to play with me?” We have to give them the space to figure out how to navigate these new social situations, partially by letting them fend for themselves.
It’s so very hard for us parents to watch our babies having a tough time. But the biggest thing I learned from this whole experience is that sometimes you have to let them fail a little. We can only protect them so much if we want them to be able to thrive when we’re not around. And as difficult as it may be, letting them fight their own battles is the only way to reinforce that point.
They will stumble, but kids are surprisingly resilient. Sure, they will get their feelings hurt, but chances are, they have the tools to fix the problem without us getting involved. Be there to guide them, of course, but only get involved if the problem gets out of hand.
It also made me feel good to know that my son didn’t need me to fight his battles for him, because he was perfectly capable of doing it on his own. And honestly, that’s even more important than him making friends.