When Aden was little, maybe right around when she turned three, she became very interested in making friends. As our first born she didn’t have built in playmates at home yet, and she was intrigued and excited by any interaction she had with other children. But she was shy. Until one day her dad, sitting with her on the edge of the busy playground, said, “Do you know who all these kids are?” Aden shook her head. “They’re all friends.” She turned to see all the children on the playground in a new light, and ran off to play with them.
Aden still has moments of shyness, as do many of us, but for the most part she is a master of making new friends. She likes to lead games and she’s popular at school. I’ve watched her strike up conversations with new children dozens of times, and she has a natural way of making them feel at ease. She forms attachments quickly and is a loyal and engaged friend. She is far more advanced in these skills than I am.
But the rules of friendship are simpler the younger you are.
As toddlers, children just playing near each other can get labeled as friends. As an older child or teenager the politics of who is your friend can be contentious and complex territory. Friendships can become obsolete over time and dissolve with distance or circumstance. I am lucky enough to have friends that I’ve stayed connected to since I was a child, despite multiple moves and changes. The world would be a harsher place without them.
As an adult I don’t like to swing the word ‘friend’ around too loosely. I’ve lived long enough that the word is precious. My true and dear friends are as important to me as any family and I feel committed to them in the same way. This is part of why I don’t think I’ve been good about embracing Facebook, because I don’t like referring to anybody who wants to link to my page as a friend. ‘Contact’ I could see (or ‘fan’ or ‘well-wisher’ or in my opinion ‘eavesdropper’ would be good), but ‘friend?’ I originally went on Facebook just because I wanted to see my brother’s page. I kind of liked that first day where I had only one friend. But then requests came in and at first I was picky–again because of the use of the word ‘friend.’ ‘Friending’ people I actually knew was one thing, but I remember turning down the request of my friend’s husband’s sister because she wasn’t someone I would recognize in a crowd and why on earth did she want to be on my friend list? I’ve come to terms with the Facebook thing and anyone who wants on can be there, but I still don’t like the watering down of the word friend to something so casual. Real friends are rare.
So for me making new ones is hard. At my age the most daunting part is getting through all the background information because there is so much of it. To have a meaningful conversation with someone about my life he or she needs to know the cast of characters and the back story that goes with them. There have been times I’ve wanted to talk about something important with a newer friend, but thinking about all the background necessary to get to the part that currently interests me seems exhausting. It’s easier to just call a friend back home or one of my brothers and get right to the point. For my kids a long history of shared experience to base a friendship on isn’t even possible because they don’t have much history period. Both parties liking the color pink is good enough.
I don’t often hear discussions about strategies for making friends as an adult. I give my kids ideas about how to make and keep friends when they need it, but offering to share sidewalk chalk isn’t as natural a plan past a certain age. As a parent you don’t often choose the people you spend time with because they just happen to be the parents of the kids with whom your own children want to play. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t (and I must say, I’ve been particularly lucky in that regard that my kids’ friends seem to consistently have very nice parents). But trying to forge new, close relationships like the ones I enjoyed in my hometown is difficult. I remember when we first moved to Milwaukee I was so desperate for friends that when I exchanged a nice moment in a checkout line at the grocery store with a woman about my age I almost blurted out, “Will you be my friend?!” I eventually did do that with someone who is still my friend when I met her behind the scenes of a museum tour, but that was after slightly more interaction than saying, “Hey, you dropped that.”
I’ve been giving all of this a lot of thought lately for two reasons. The first is that Quinn is turning four and he gets to have his own little party where he can choose the guests for once. He picked a couple of people from school to invite over for pizza and cake, but I don’t know what criteria he used for labeling those people his friends. The first couple of weeks of school I asked him if he’d made any friends yet and he said no. Aden would have simply labeled the whole class her friends. Quinn’s approach is different, but I’m not sure what it is. It’s just kind of fascinating to watch. I want all my kids to enjoy having wonderful friends, but it’s one of those things I can’t control, and that’s never easy.
The other reason is I have a new friend named Lauren. She’s a talented local writer who makes me laugh, and she’s agreed to a friendship building plan that gets through all the background work more efficiently. We’re taking turns on email asking each other to share information about important things like best friends, fathers, preference for plain or peanut M&Ms…. It’s fun. I feel like we could come up with a handbook at some point about what are good questions to ask new friends to speed up the process. That’s the thing about being older, is there is more to cover but less time in which to do it. A comprehensive checklist could be just the thing.
Auditioning for a new friend is such a strange, awkward phase. Too much dependence or information too soon can feel inappropriate or a little crazy. The nice thing about Lauren is she seems the same amount of inappropriate and crazy as myself. I think we’re both looking for someone to have in town with whom we can talk about anything and laugh until it hurts. It’s finding a match that works and being willing to put in the effort to get that off the ground that’s hard. But it’s worth it, because, really? What’s better than having good friends? (And Lauren, you’ve now been officially declared my friend on the internet, and I’m sure that’s legally binding so you’re stuck with me. Unless that sounded creepy instead of funny in which case I’m sorry. Agh! Stupid early awkward phase….)