Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sharing, including everyone: Do the principles we espouse when they're 7 still make sense at 40?

Earlier this year, my seven-year-old daughter Holly talked to me about a schoolyard problem she was experiencing.

Holly’s problem was, as I understood it, simply that she was a little bewildered by the revolving-door aspect of girls’ friendships. She has a lot of friends, and although she’s definitely closer to some than others, I’ve long encouraged her to play with many different kids for just the reason that she is now encountering: sometimes a girl who seemed to be your best friend one day wants to play with someone else the next.

I don’t consider this bullying or meanness. No one was deliberately excluding anyone else. At worst, they were being fickle; or to put a less negative spin on it, they were seeking variety in their recess encounters. I can’t fault any of the girls for it, but it was confusing to Holly, who felt that even with a dozen or more girls at school whom she considers good friends, she should still be able to count on playing Tuesday with the same friend she played with on Monday.

Her teacher, who has plenty of experience in the ways of second-grade girls and was remarkably willing to do what she could to nip incipient problems in the bud, went way beyond the call of duty in confronting this problem when I sought her insights. She invited all the girls in her class to a weekly lunch club where they could talk about friendship strategies. Her discussions with the girls have focused on the importance of not leaving anyone out, confirming my sense that no child was guilty of being unkind, just negligent, likely without realizing it. If there was anything at all to identify as a fault, it was one of omission, not commission.

But as Holly and her classmates talked about how it’s more fun to include everyone, I couldn’t help feeling a sneaking sense of hypocrisy that I sometimes get when I find myself encouraging my kids to uphold standards that I don’t feel I’m held to myself. This was a big issue for me when my older child, Tim, was three or four and we talked about sharing. I just couldn’t help thinking about how the way we expect small children to play together is not exactly something adults would be comfortable with for themselves. Even while I’d be saying to Tim, “Give Ryan a turn with your tricycle,” I’d think to myself how odd it would be if Ryan’s mom asked to take my car out for a spin or use my iPod. I’d say yes, of course. It wouldn’t be a problem; it would just be unusual. And yet we expect kids to be generous with their toys all the time.

A few years after going through his own tribulations associated with sharing and playgroups, Tim would sometimes come home from school to see one of Holly’s friends playing with his train set or nerf football. I’d urge him not to see make a fuss over it, but I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a little awkward if, say, my husband came home from work and found one of my friends sitting at his desk using his computer.

Now that both kids are in grade school, the sharing of material goods isn’t so much of an issue for them. These days when they have friends over to play, it’s usually with the goal of enjoying a toy or activity together, rather than avoiding that. But with Holly’s friendship challenges, I find myself again comparing my expectations of her with my expectations of myself. If every single time I wanted to talk to my friend Nicole over a cup of coffee I was required to include a half-dozen other acquaintances in the conversation, I wouldn’t be too happy about it. When I visit with Nicole or any of my close friends, I value the one-on-one time. It’s not the same when someone else shows up unexpectedly. We’d never leave anyone out, but it’s only fair to admit I wouldn’t expect to enjoy the visit as much.

On the other hand, when I hear that a couple my husband and I enjoy spending time with is going to someone else’s house for dinner, I don’t usually feel slighted. At this point it’s just second nature to me to see that if you’re fortunate, you have a range of different friends and enjoy their company at different times.

So maybe it’s not a matter of different standards as much as learning lessons now that will help them later. As I tell Holly, it’s good to have a wide variety of friends so that you never feel left out if any one friend doesn’t want to play with you. It’s just as true for me now as it is for her; the only real difference is that I’ve had a lot more years to learn it.

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