The other day I got to the kids' school for the book fair right on time. When I arrived, my oldest son, Ari, was in tears and complaining of chest pains. His teacher had her arm around him, but I could tell she wasn't sure what to do except wait for me to walk through the doors. When he finally calmed down and his chest pain dissolved, he told me that one of his friends punched him in the chest at lunch.
"Why would he do that?" I asked. "He's your friend."
"I don't know," Ari said.
"Well, what happened at lunch? Did you have an argument when you were playing baseball?"
"No, I didn't play with him."
I looked at him but already knew the answer to my next question. "So who were you playing with?"
Naturally, he and his brother played with our neighbour, who is several years older.
"Ari, you play with him in the morning, after school and into the evening. It's very important that you play with lots of different kids and have different groups of friends. You can't play with just one person. If he's sick one day or moves schools you'll feel like you have nobody."
I remember the feeling exactly. I was in Grade 7 and my best friend Galit and I were inseparable. We did projects together, we were partners in gym, we had sleepovers. I didn't know what I'd do without her. And then one day, I learned just how dependent I was on her friendship when she called in sick to school. I was lost without her.
I didn't know who to talk to in class. I didn't know who to play with at lunch. I had essentially avoided making close friends with anyone else, forgotten how to make an effort, and now I felt isolated. Like I had no other friends if Galit wasn't there to join in and point me in the right direction.
I remember that feeling of loss and helplessness. I remember feeling like a loser. I vowed to make an effort to form other friendships, to play with more kids. And now that I see my son falling into the same pattern, I'm trying to make sure he never feels the way I did.
I don't know if my methods are right. Am I being a helicopter mom? Am I being too involved? Shouldn't kids learn to deal with these issues on their own, or is it ok to provide some well intentioned guidance? I handled it the best way I knew how.
I spoke to my boys and told them my story about the day Galit was sick and didn't come to school. I told them that of course they can play with their neighbour, but at school it would be good if they made an effort to play with lots of different kids, and kids their own age. Maybe the boy who punched Ari was jealous or wanted his attention, I suggested. Maybe he feels badly today.
I also spoke to their teachers and asked them to encourage my boys to somehow expand their social network. I wasn't sure if I was asking too much. It's not their job to police academics and friendships, after all, but I know their teachers genuinely care about the students. Frankly, I didn't know whom to turn to if not their teachers.
Hopefully today goes better. Hopefully nobody gets punched or collapses with chest pains -- pains from a little broken heart, I'm sure. It's not easy growing up, learning how to navigate the politics of friendship. I still struggle sometimes and I've got 29 years more experience than Ari. All I know is that I'm doing the best I can to both protect my boys and teach them to manage tricky life lessons even when I'm not there. Even when it might not be my place.
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