My daughter was sad this week after an outing with two of her best friends. One picked the other for a partner dance, at a Pow Wow in a rainy field in the woods. It was a competition, actually, where two people balance a potato between their forheads without touching each other in any way – no hand-to-hand contact, no elbow contact – and then they dance to a multitude of drums. Pretty amazing really, to see it in action. Her friends ran off the field before the drums began, once they understood the rules. “You can’t touch!” one squealed, and tried to give back her potato. “How can you do it if you can’t touch?”
Still, my little girl was devastated. She had not been picked. There were three girls, it was a partner dance, and whether the girls stayed on the field to dance or not (they eventually danced, and received two purple insulated lunch bags to prove it), the fact remained that one friend had picked the other friend, leaving my little girl standing alone in the field without a potato.
I imagine the whole thing was harder to take after staying up late at a cousins’ sleepover the night before.
“My friends don’t like me anymore,” she told me over dinner.
“Why do you say that?” I asked. I’ve started reading a new book, “Little Girls Can Be Mean,” but I haven’t reached the strategy section yet. I was flying solo, and I don’t remember trusting my friends ’til I was nine. We arrived at the heart of the matter only after passing through some incredible rudeness, a bout of defiance, a crying jag and seven minutes on the stairs, followed by a long conversation about teamwork and selfishness. Maybe this is what every parent goes through.
“Because they didn’t pick me,” she replied.
“I see. Threes are hard.” Where was my empathy? I was definitely off my game. Maybe I was tired.
“Fours are hard, too,” she offered, having just enjoyed the four-kid sleepover in her aunties’ basement. We talked some more about special connections and sharing, about inclusion and exclusion. For most thorny issues, we had a book. For anger. For discrimination. For death, divorce, or insight on a plethora of family configurations, I could reach for an age-appropriate book and we would read together. My mom was an assistant librarian, my dad a professor, and I manage words for a living. But she never read the books about friendship I picked out.
“Why don’t you tell them how you feel, honey?” I suggested, channeling some pop psychology line I had read in a half-browsed parenting book. “That can make a lot of difference with friends. Friends care how you feel.”
“Except if they don’t notice,” she said. “Sometimes, I don’t.”
“Right. Sometimes I don’t either. But when you do notice – or when they tell you – it matters to you. Right?” She nodded, and put another cucumber in her mouth. It struck me that she and I were going through the same thing. Maybe that’s why it was so hard for me to empathize. I, too, have recently felt shut out by friends. I don’t throw down my toys and refuse to do laundry. I don’t shout at them, “Well, then you’re not my friend!” But it must show in some way. I wonder how it looks. Last week, I told my friends how I felt: shut out, shut down, disrespected, unimportant, uninvolved, like the sixth-grader I once was – always last-picked for the team. It had taken me months.
But my daughter is more savvy than I, more willing to try new things, to open herself and try a fresh approach. She simply admits as I so rarely do, “Sometimes I don’t notice.” Because it’s true, in my own little puddle of grief, sometimes I don’t notice the feelings of friends. Maybe that’s the next step.
Forget the book. My daughter’s a genius. We can learn all this together. I can learn not to shut down. I can learn to engage. Live and let go. Let go and live. Share and engage. Surely there are mantras for this new lesson.
I took another bite of my own dinner, and we went on about our night. “You’re Professor McGonagall,” she said. “And I’m a dog.”