Meeting new people is a skill we all learn how to master with time and practice. Our kids get crash courses in introductions every fall when they go back to school.
Some kids take a mellow approach to getting to know their peers, while others like to dive right in with the questions.
My 6-year-son son is on the mellow side. He doesn’t need to know someone’s name to play soccer with them. He doesn’t need to know where a kid lives in order to sit next to him. It was weeks before he learned the name of his camp counselors. He is more interested in how many times a new acquaintance has seen Star Wars than anything else.
And those kids who jump in with inquiries? There isn’t anything wrong with asking questions to get to know each other, but for some kids the answers to those questions aren’t necessarily going to be a societal norm or expected answer.
I learned this myself growing up.
My parents divorced when I was a baby in the ’70s. This was LONG before divorce was, sadly, something commonplace. When I was in elementary school, divorce wasn’t something my classmates understood, yet. When my mother decided to go to law school we moved in with my grandparents for a while. Our family unit was pretty awesome, but it wasn’t typical. Kids noticed instantly I had a different status quo and the questions boiled up:
“Who was that old man dropping you off at school?”
“Why didn’t your mom drop you off?”
“My mom is studying for an exam.”
“What about your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“Yes you do.”
“OK. But my parents divorced.”
I am pretty certain I introduced the word “divorce” to most of my classmates in the early ’80s. (At least those who didn’t grow up listening to Tammy Wynette.)
If only we had known how to ease into getting to know each other. If only we had understood we were more alike than different. I think we are luckier as parents in this era of greater acceptance and awareness. Many of our parents were breaking new ground in societal norms but could barely explain things to themselves, much less figure out what to tell the kids.
In our generation things can be more complex than a split family.
One of the best things we can do is to talk openly with our kids about other families and the world around us. Talk about cultures in the neighborhood, the different holidays religions may celebrate, and languages other families may use. Talking can help a child experience how to be curious and aware without disruptively grilling a new kid.
You can also help prepare a kid for facing the nosiness of others by giving them the vocabulary, the understanding, and the deflectors to minimize being in the spotlight. Ask your child if there is anything he is anxious about being asked about or talking about, and then talk it out with him.
A lot can happen over the summer break: a new sibling, the death of a loved one, parents in counseling, growth spurts, orthodontia… People change, friendships fade or strengthen, and it’s a good thing to check in on all of this.
Starting a new school is one of the big deals for my son this year. In addition to learning the ins and outs of a new building and a new schedule, he also has new people to get to know. And these new people will want to get to know him. I’ve talked to him about the similarities he might have with his classmates and some of the differences.
My son may also be introducing the word “donor” to some of his classmates in pretty much the same way I introduced the word “divorce.” Usually when asked about a father or dad my son will simply say, “I don’t have one.” This is a sufficient answer for 85% of the people who are talking to him. But for those who insist, “Yes, you do have a dad.” He correctly responds with, “No, I have a donor.”
It would help if other parents are having conversations about the diversity of families with their kids as well.
Because not every child has a dad.