Thursday, June 28, 2018

Building Blocks Of The Next Friendships

"It's our food," she told me when I paused to take a look at what they were doing. "We're baby panthers and this is our food." She was arranging containers of sand at the base of one of the cedars that divide the upper and lower parts of the space.

They had been playing together intently for the better part of an hour, this girl and boy. Their history together prior to last week had been minimal, but they have now found one another during this brief two-week session of summer time at Woodland Park. I didn't reply other than to smile because I didn't want to interrupt their flow, but she wanted to tell me about their game.

"We're baby panthers. This is where we eat our food." She shifted the bowls needlessly, but purposefully, as she spoke.

Her new friend chimed in, "I'm a boy baby panther and she's a girl baby panther."

"And we're lost from our mother," she added, her eyebrows pushed together in an expression of sadness. "We're also sick and need a doctor."

I said, "That's a sad story."

"It's the saddest story in the whole world," the boy agreed excitedly before catching himself to affect a look of sorrow.

The girl snarled at me, "We're baby panthers."

"Yeah, we're baby panthers.

I've overheard them playing this game for a few days now. From what I can tell, saying, "We're baby panthers," stands at the heart of the game. They say it to the other children, who sometimes take it as an invitation, asking to join them. They say it to the adults, who sometimes feign sympathy for their plight as sick babies without their mother. They say it to one another, again and again, continually affirming their connection, their alliance, in this game that has come to fill their days. It's a friendship that is likely to end today when the session does, but they will both carry the experience away with them as a building block for future friendships.

The instinct to connect with other people through friendship is among the strongest and most important ones humans have. It's why we worry so much when our children struggle with it, or are misguided in their attempts. Yesterday, a two-year-old was sitting between a five-year-old and a three-year-old while I read a story. The older boys were trying to pay attention, but the younger was poking them with his finger. Each time he did, the boys would say, "Stop it!" but he either didn't understand or care about their clear cue, continuing to poke first one then the other as if non-verbally asking a question about these other people with whom he found himself, and confirming his answer over and over. Finally, I stopped reading to call his name and say, "Those boys don't like when you poke them." He looked at each of them again, then at me, and said, "Stop it!" and he did. This is another one of those building blocks of friendship.

The path is never smooth. I've had a number of adults tell me that their best friendships came through conflict, which seems bizarre to me because none of mine ever have. Some people, like our daughter, prefer a large, ever-growing and evolving group of friends, with several "best friends," instead of just the one or two. I remember clearly how she experimented with these concepts during her preschool years: she was always happiest in the midst of her "girl gangs." Others, of course, are just the opposite. For some, like myself, our best friendships tend to grow out of doing things with other people, engaging in a project with them, working shoulder-to-shoulder, while others build their strongest friendships while turned face-to-face, talking and sharing and listening. Some friendships grow from long, shared histories, while others become fast in a moment, like an epiphany. Whatever the case, we are all born with the drive to create the connection we call friendship, even if we have different natural instincts about how to pursue them.

Childhood is our most important time to figure these things out, to collect the experiences to use as building blocks for the next friendships. Some of our experiments are successful, like the one between our baby panthers, while others will end in people telling us, in so many words, to "Stop it!" There will be incredible joy and heartbreaking sorrow because it is both important and often very difficult, more so for some than others. As important adults in the lives of children, our job is to give them the time and space to perform the experiments they need to perform, knowing that it will as likely lead to conflict as it will intimacy. We will often see them heading toward pain, or see them pursuing friendship in a way the seems unfair or unbalanced, and the temptation is to caution them, and we should, gently, but we also can't be surprised when they don't heed us. Sometimes we just have to poke the other people before we really understand they don't like it.

Like most things in life, friendship is not a destination, but rather a never-ending project, one that is different for each of us. And therein, I think, lies both the challenge and the attraction: even as we pursue our own paths, no one, by definition, can travel the path of friendship alone.

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