Monday, July 20, 2009
Who is a friend?
When are kids are small, we try to teach them what it means to be a good friend. When a child struggles with social skills it is difficult for them to discern who is actually behaving like a friend. My son, Josh, had great difficulty recognizing body language and tone of voice and often missed social cues. At times this was a blessing because it meant that he missed the facial expressions, unkind comments, and even blatant rejection that was frequently directed at him. I felt enough pain for both of us sometimes, I think. I remember so many incidents of Josh trying to connect with other kids and my trying to coach him so he would be more successful. One summer, years ago, Josh was probably 6 or 7 years old and we had gone to the community pool for the afternoon. He saw a boy about his age and approached him to see if he wanted to play. They exchanged a few sentences, and suddenly I saw the boy shove Josh as hard as he could into the deep end of the pool. Josh had only recently learned to swim and was not yet up to swimming in the deep end, and I ran to the side of the pool and pulled my spluttering son out of the water. There was a red hand print on his back from where he had been pushed. By then the other boy had run off, but I approached a life guard and made her look at the mark left on Josh and pointed out the boy who had left it. She said she knew him and would talk to him about it. Another attempt at a relaxing afternoon was superceded by this distressing incident. Josh and I talked about it at the time, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid similar events in the future. It wasn't until years later that Josh was able to tell me more about what he was thinking that day. He said he'd really wanted to play with someone and that boy was also by himself and looked to be around the same age. He never did figure out why the boy shoved him into the deep end and took off. But Josh remembers what he was thinking as he was sinking down in the water. "Maybe if I make it back up we can still be friends." Wow. There was never any hint of friendliness from that boy toward Josh, and certainly propelling another child into the deep end of the pool without knowing if he can swim seems obviously hostile. But not to Josh, who didn't innately understand how a friend should act. For most children, an experience like that makes a huge impression and they have no desire to be around the one who rejected them. For Josh, it was just one more confusing experience in the confusing world of social interactions.