Helping my five-year-old navigate friendship

By Amy Kline

“I only have one concern…”

Here it comes, I thought.

My husband and I sat across from my daughter’s preschool teachers in a conference room. Laid out on the table were the papers that proved our daughter could handle kindergarten, academically: a questionnaire, examples of her handwriting, a sample of her following the lines with a pair of scissors. I expected what I saw, that my child could sit still in a circle, that she could learn to read and write, and that she could patiently raise her hand and wait her turn.

At the end, the senior teacher, who’d taught preschool for many years, raised her hands and said, “If you want to send Ava to kindergarten this year, I think she’ll do just fine. We forget she’s the youngest in the class all the time.” But then, she put her hands back on the table and crossed them. “I only have one concern. Socially.”

I caught myself pulling on one of my earrings and drew my hand back into my lap.

Her teacher went on to describe how my daughter has difficulty on the playground.

“She only wants to play with one friend, Lily,” she said. “But Lily wants to play with the other kids sometimes too.”

I’d heard at least one side of this story before in the car, on the way home from school. My daughter would cry, describing how her best friend didn’t want to play with her and didn’t want to be friends anymore. She always began the ride with “Lily was nice today.” Or, “Lily was mean today.” It was “Lily” this and “Lily” that, all day every day.

“If she can’t play with Lily, then she won’t play with anyone,” her teacher continued. “We’ve had some tears.”

My mind flashed back to college when my husband and I were first dating. I knew that my dad had talked to him privately near the beginning of our relationship, but it wasn’t until much later that my husband told me one thing my dad had said.

“She doesn’t really keep more than one friend at a time,” my dad told him. “So, don’t feel like it’s your fault if her other good friendship starts to fall apart.”

Just two years later, it had. My best friend and I used to do everything together. Then, in the middle of college, it felt like she vanished. Now, I wonder how much of our broken friendship was my fault.

In the conference room, I felt my hands beginning to sweat.

Ava’s preschool teacher watched us with kind eyes. “I’d really like to see her play with some other kids.”

Her voice lowered as she suggested, “Do you think it might be some anxiety?”

At that word, my heart dropped.

I remembered crying and screaming at my Sunday school teachers when my mom tried to leave, even through the second grade. I remembered choking up when someone new tried to talk to me, and I couldn’t find the words—any words. I remembered sitting in the classroom in fifth grade, reading a book, because then I didn’t have to play with anyone at recess. Even now, with the fear aspect mostly under control, I struggle to understand the dynamics of friendship.

And here I am, I thought, responsible for this little girl who’s just like me. She’s like me.

“It’s something to keep an eye on,” her teacher said. “In the meantime, we’ll keep encouraging her to play with the other kids.”

I nodded, and as we left the parent-teacher meeting, my husband and I exchanged a glance that said he knew what I was thinking.

How am I supposed to help my child with her social issues when I still haven’t worked through mine?

And yet, I pushed. Or at least I tried.

Soon, “Did you play with any other friends today?” became my daily mantra.

On our car rides, I encouraged her to tell me about the other people in her class. If she said Lily was mean, then I encouraged her to take a break and play with someone else.

Until, one day, Ava hopped in the car after school, pink-cheeked from the heat and beaming, and said, “MOM! Today I played with a NEW friend!”

By the time the school year ended, she had all sorts of friends to talk about.

The truth, I realized, is this: my daughter is not me. She may be fearful at times, like me. She may have some social anxiety, like me. She may love reading, like me. She may worry a lot, like me. But, she’s not me, and she can take a different path.

My daughter may have my genetics, and she may be a part of me, but she is her own person with different experiences. Her story doesn’t have to be mine.

Amy Kline taught high school literature and writing, and now spends her time chasing her two little girls, buying too many plants, and reading fantasy novels.

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