When I got the teacher’s note that my son is having trouble getting along with his classmates, I instantly felt sick. This is an ongoing problem for him. It’s not a simple problem, but mostly his teacher thinks it comes down to this: He wants to be friends with everyone so badly. Badly enough that he’ll do anything to get their attention, and his efforts are so relentless that he usually only succeeds in alienating the classmates he is trying to attract.
I want to help him more than anything. And I have no idea how to help him. My dirty little secret is that I don’t really want to be friends with anyone.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration.
I want to be seen as friendly and I want to be liked back by people I like. I have a few close friends who I have known for many years but, at heart, I am a true introvert and my biggest desire is mostly to spend as much time either with my immediate family or by myself.
That is my personality, but some of my preferences were also shaped by experience. I experienced some bullying in grade school, and in middle school it dawned on me as a poor farm kid that I was never going to have enough money to buy all the clothing, things and experiences that most kids in our affluent school district could afford.
I remember very clearly the day I realized this in the eighth grade. That was the day I had this thought: If I’m never going to fit in I don’t want to fit in.
I’ve had this attitude for more than 30 years now and have lived quite happily within its constraints. I have been able to make the friends I wanted to make; I’ve largely held the professional jobs I wanted to hold; I fell in love and was able to convince someone else they were in love with me. I have two little boys whose company I enjoy endlessly.
But every time I get a note like this from my son’s teachers, I become more aware of my system’s shortcomings.
When he was small and would play with others, afterward I would ask him questions like “Who did you have the most fun with today?” Or “Who made you laugh the most today?”
And he would answer, “I had fun with everybody!” and “They all made me laugh!”
I loved the optimism of these answers, but now I think of them with a feeling that can probably best be described as dismay. He really does like everyone. He wants to play with everybody. He wants to do everything they do. And for me, that is a problem.
I am torn. His desire to like and be liked is inspiring to me. But I am also a worrier and to me an attitude of “I will do anything to be liked” seems synonymous with “I will go along with anything faster than you can say ‘peer pressure.'”
How do you teach a balance between getting along and going along? Saying yes to everything until it’s time to say no? More specifically, for me, how do you teach that balance when the only thing that’s ever worked for you personally is to simply remove yourself from most interpersonal equations?
I haven’t figured it out yet. In the meantime, I tell my son all the things I believe. That he will always belong, 100%, with us and his extended family. That if you just do your own thing, people with similar interests will find you. That, weirdly (and I’ve never understood this either), sometimes the harder you try to make people like you the less likely they are to do so.
I tell him these things. But I also recognize that for him they are not the whole truth. He will need to develop his own system, and his system is going to be more open and flexible and friendly than mine. If I want to help him, I am going to have to model that type of open behavior. I am going to have to make myself vulnerable with people in a way that I haven’t for many, many years. This is going to mean asking for help.
So I’m starting here. How do you teach your children to make the best friendships possible? In the bigger picture: How do you teach your children skills that you might not ever have developed for yourself? Thank you for letting me ask, and be vulnerable, here.