Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Socialization and Boundaries
Have I mentioned how much I learn by observing my children?
We live too close to our kids' schools for them to ride the bus yet too far for them to walk alone, which makes for a lot of driving! But I have to admit, I cherish the minutes we get to share each afternoon as they tell me the things about their day that were the most significant to them. Often, they surprise me with what makes the top of their list.
I hear a lot of names: the friend they spent recess with, the friend they sat with at lunch, the friend who made them laugh in class, the friend they shared an inside joke with, the friend who got hurt, the friend who doesn't celebrate Christmas, the "best" friend, the friend who surprised them with a little gift.
When I was young, I lived for company. I was constantly begging my mom to invite other families to dinner. We socialized as families, only rarely as peer groups. So if I met a nice girl at church, the only way to get to know her better was to invite her parents and siblings to coordinate schedules in order to spend an evening at our house. What if her dad didn't get along with my dad? (In the end, all our friends came from other homeschooling families with stay-at-home moms who wore denim jumpers and breastfed their babies.) As I got older, I realized that guests meant extra housecleaning and extra work in the kitchen. It was still fun, but it was also a lot of work. By then, there were ten...eleven...twelve...thirteen of us. Our social invitations were limited to potlucks and graduation "open houses"!
When I married and moved to a new city where I knew no one but my in-laws, I was again desperate for company. I was always trying to gather people around my table: contacts from church, neighbors, extended family, old acquaintances with connections to Bill Gothard's cult. My husband, raised without siblings, could never quite understand my craving for social interaction, for sharing meals with other humans. It took years for me to realize that I was happier with a few quality friendships, even long-distance ones, than with frequent interactions with people I wasn't really compatible with.
With my kids in school forming so many new relationships, I braced myself for requests for guests, for playdates, for birthday parties, for outings with friends. When no one brought them up, I started asking. Maybe the kids had been too timid to ask. Were there any friends from school they would like to invite over sometime? To play with on a Saturday? To share their birthday cake?
No, it turns out, my kids just have better boundaries than I do. Each of them has plenty of friends at school. They enjoy their peers, look forward to seeing them, get along well with them, play at the activities that are available to them at school. But then my children come home and they enjoy each other, they play the games our family enjoys; they spend time playing alone, or reading, or watching their favorite shows. Sometimes they visit with friends in our neighborhood--friends they don't see at school. They rebuild connections here, then go out the next day and start again!
My siblings and I traveled as a pack when we went to a playground. "Public" spaces didn't mean "shared" so much as "available for temporary claims". We would keep our eyes on a piece of equipment, wait till all the other kids left it vacant, then swarm around our new territory. If another kid or two tried to engage with us, we would usually ignore them until they left, or until we tired and moved on to something else. When my family went
to the beach, we would pack up and head back to the car when other swimmers arrived.
My kids, especially the youngest, are much more comfortable in public spaces. They will engage with other children, play together, combine forces, join conversations. At the pool, the playground, or the gym, they are usually willing to accept other children as playmates. B--- will readily describe such a temporary attachment as "my new friend". Should a child not prove trustworthy, my children will distance themselves, recognizing instinctively that respect can be both earned and lost.
I applaud public education for helping my children learn boundaries. They are already more differentiated than I was at twice their age! They know where others end and they begin. They are neither isolated nor lonely. They are surrounded by opportunities to learn what matters to them: Shared values? Common interests? Compatible personalities? Similar or diverse customs? They get practical experience in cultivating relationships--what builds them and what damages them. They are learning which friends, or teachers, can be relied on, and which ones simply drain other people's energy.
Our entire family benefits from the social support that students provide to each other. At the beginning of this school year, our older two would build up a lot of anxiety and stress each day. It took a lot of my energy to coach them and reassure them. But as the year goes on, they are building stronger bonds with their classmates. They endure the same pressures, but they don't feel alone. By the time they get home these days, the kids have worked through most of their stresses. They have already laughed with a friend about the grumpy substitute or shared a complaint about being treated unfairly at recess. I bring them back to the house and they are ready to move on to happier things.
I can't help wondering how my life would be different if I had not been such a lonely child. What if church services and Vacation Bible School had not been my only contacts with peers? What if I had been surrounded with boys and girls my own age whose life experience was different from my own?
I learn so much from watching my children be human.