Oh dear. I’m officially stumped as a parent. I thought I’ve come across most things by now, but we’ve entered into uncharted territory, and I haven’t got a map. I should be used to this by now, the eleventh rule of parenting being: Never Get Complacent (next to #10: Expect The Unexpected; and #12: Get Used To The Smell).
Alice is nearly eight years old now, and in common with many eight-year-olds, she’s having issues with friends. Without going into too much detail, Alice is discovering that friends are not always consistently friendly, which is rich coming from a girl who likes engaging with other people, and then sods off unexpectedly to go and talk to flowers by herself. She is, however, very sensitive to people being mean to her, and she and her classmates are getting to the age where random acts of deliberate spite are creeping more and more into everyday life.
Of course, Alice tells me this, and I’m buggered if I know what to do. Look, I know friendships. I do have friends, of course. I’ve made many friends over the years, and lost a few, but I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of mates I can always call on for matey business. However, I’m really not good with people. I don’t understand people. I like to think I do, but I really don’t, and I’m frequently bothered by this. People are weird, aren’t they? Strange little sacks of meat and bone and guts, held together with skin, and driven by unfathomable emotions and selfish desires. On one hand, I’m capable of causing anger and misery with just four poorly-chosen words. On the other, good-natured people have been known to cause me sleepless nights with jocular banter that I have taken far too literally. I am prone to wildly misunderstand people, even the best people at the best of times, because of something that was said that caused my circuits to fuse. So I’m at a loss how to give advice to Alice.
Unfortunately, a few months ago, Alice’s BFF told her she didn’t want Alice to hang around with her so much. Alice’s heartbreak at this has been considerable, and sad to witness. Poor kid took it well at first, but as the reality sunk in, she has become despondent. And it’s bothering me, because Alice is not being her usual type of upset. Traditionally, Alice being upset would involve copious tears, theatrical soliloquies about loss and friends and woe, and hand-to-brow flinging herself onto carefully-positioned sofa cushions. This time, it’s different. Alice is displaying a quiet melancholy about the end of the friendship. She isn’t talking about it much, which is very unusual. She is sombre and thoughtful, and I believe the loss of her friend has caused something a lot more profound and fundamental, and may well leave a permanent scar on Alice’s psyche. BFF has moved on, and Alice has learned that BF’s are not necessarily F. It’s a hard, difficult, painful, but necessary lesson to learn.
Above all, I’m loathe to involve myself in any of Alice’s friendships. I don’t think it’s a great idea for parents to interfere with their child’s relationships with other people in any way. I’d even go so far as to say it’s not a good idea to go to the lengths of forbidding your child from hanging round with another child, even if the friend is something of a malignant influence, but then, Alice hasn’t made friends with anyone I’ve disapproved of and I’ve not been in that situation, so how I would react is anyone’s guess (though I’m really looking forward, in a decade or so, to all the future spotty and awkward teenage boyfriends I’m going to thoroughly disapprove of and bully. Hee-hee!).
C.S. Lewis once said that “Friendship is born at that moment where one person says to another: ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one!’ “. Childhood friendships are strange things. I am of an age where I struggle to remember how my own childhood friendships worked. Being a boy, I generally bonded with people over topics such as Star Wars and the humourous potential of bums. Also being a boy, a lot of childhood games sometimes erupted into fights, most of them jolly, some of them not. I didn’t really have girls who were friends of mine until much later, because as we all know, Girls Have Diseases.
And those girls who were friendly towards me in my pre-pubescent years were treated with a degree of meanness, because I was that kind of little turd. As such, I’m not very good on the friendships that young girls have. Even now, girl friendships are sometimes a complete mystery to me. A lot of them seem to be a bonding of two people who need comfort against a hostile world. The boy friendships in Alice’s class appear to be shouty and involve punching and yelling. The girl friendships seem to be a seething mass of resentments, hierarchy, snobbery and bitching, interspersed with breathless joy at shared imaginary scenarios.
Alice’s own friendship issues possibly lie with her being an only child. She is very particular about what games to play, how to play them, and how to get other people involved. If other people join in, Alice can be quite reluctant to accept that the game becomes a collaborative effort. Alice demands that people play the game according to Alice’s often-changing rules, and strict adherence to the ongoing narrative of the game, neither of which gets explained by Alice beforehand. Thus a chum might often bring their own element to the improv, which will exasperate our girl to the point of irritation. Alice then takes off and starts talking to the chain-link fencing, leaving chum somewhat bewildered.
Of course it works the other way: Alice will join in on someone’s game, be unclear about the rules, doesn’t ask how the game is played and instead makes up her own rules, and then is outraged when people tell her to play the game properly. She doesn’t yet have a sense of irony, poor kid.
So there I am, yesterday afternoon, with an uncharacteristically sombre Alice slowly explaining to me her friendship issues. I could only respond as an adult, which probably wasn’t helpful to her as a child. Alice told me all of this in a very quiet voice, because she didn’t want people to know, and she didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. And then she told me, without being aware that she was inconsistent, that she had already explained her predicament to a dozen or so of her friends, and her teacher.
“I thought you didn’t want people to know about this?”, I said.
“You’ve told half the class!”
She looked furtively around the room in case anyone was listening. There were only two of us, and it was our living room. “Yes, but I’ve told them to keep it quiet”, she whispered.
Oh boy. Let’s hope they don’t behave like twats about this (no, that’s not fair; they’re not twats, just kids, and they’re generally nice kids, but they may turn out to be typical kids and be a bit horrid to her for a bit. Let’s hope not).
In essence, Alice actually seems to have sorted this out by herself by going to her teacher who brokered a compromise between all parties. I’m really proud of her. Of course, she told me about this friendship problem after she had sorted it, which is brilliant, but also leaves me as being just the bozo at the end of the day to whom she explains the day’s narrative. Yes, I’m irrelevant.
Let’s hope she can still sit down and talk with me in this way when she’s 14, and there’s a whole Brave New World of hormones, boys, spots, fashion, body image, and miserable music to contend with. I haven’t even thought about cyberbullying and sexting yet! Oh crap…
In a way, I’m sort of jealous that she has told about a dozen people before coming to me (including her class teacher, who incidentally has handled it pretty well), but I’m also really pleased that she has handled a difficult problem, by herself, in possibly the best and most mature way possible. Long may it continue.
But then again, I shouldn’t be all that surprised or bothered that she hasn’t consulted me on friendships. I’m not her friend. I’m her Daddy.