When You Want to Be Closer Than They Do | Part One

This is Part One of a seven-part series published over seven consecutive weeks. 

This past weekend, my son Alex had his first sleepover. A new friend from his elementary school, Chris, spent a good part of the weekend playing with him and his younger sister, Chloe; well, mostly with him, as they both did their best to avoid Chloe, despite her protests to the contrary. 

Playground Politics 

After the two of them turned our living room into a battle zone Sunday morning, Chris finally returned home after lunch and life in our home returned to normal.  

Until Sunday night. As we were putting Alex and Chloe to sleep, Alex burst into tears and cried for about an hour, inconsolable. My wife and I attempted to talk with him and understand what was going on. 

“Tomorrow, when I go to school,” Alex said between tears, “the other kids will not want to play with me.”  

“Why is that?” my wife asked. 

“There is a team of four kids led by Dylan. They are the only kids I want to play with because they have cool games. Dylan gave Chris and I a test that we needed to pass in order to play with them. We had to throw a stick over the treehouse and do other challenges. I did all the things he asked, even better than Chris. Still he said that we both failed. Then a half hour later, he said that he changed his mind and Chris passed, but I didn’t.” 

As it turned out, Alex had been crying during recess for the entire previous week without telling us. He had been following these kids around, sulking, while they made fun of him and told him to go away.  

Unreciprocated Engagement 

“What about Chris?” I asked. “Chris is your friend.” 

“Chris keeps telling me he’ll meet me at the treehouse, and then instead he goes with Dylan and those guys,” Alex replied. 

“That doesn’t sound like a very good friend,” my wife and I said almost in unison, tacitly nodding in agreement with each other that Chris would not be coming over for any more sleepovers. 

I asked Alex about Dylan. It turns out that he is two years older than Alex, and is only in the same grade because he was held back a year. 

“Dylan is probably envious of you,” I shared, “because you are much smarter than he is. Have you thought that he may be very insecure as a person if he’s trying to lead kids two years younger than he is. He’s probably scared of kids his own age.” 

Not Too Proud, But Proud Enough 

My wife told Alex about her childhood growing up in Mexico. She shared that there were three girls who lived near her house, and she was once sitting on a wall next to them and trying to be their friend while they made fun of her. 

Her father—a no-nonsense man with strong values who has put his life in danger before to prevent a teenager from being bullied—saw what was happening, approached the group, took his daughter by the hand and led her home.  

Once they entered the house, being a man of few words, he shared four with her: Nunca rogarle a nadie. (“Never beg to anyone.”) She never forgot these words in how she approached friendship. 

My wife and I tried various lines of reasoning to help Alex understand how to deal with feelings of rejection and better manage social distance, but nothing we said was stopping Alex’s flow of tears and protests about returning to school the next day for more of the same. 

What kind of playground lessons have really stuck with you and been useful through life’s challenges?