When I became a parent, I didn’t think about the fact that one day I was going to have to send my sweet little babies out into the world and their sphere of influence would exponentially grow beyond what I had filtered for them. Control freaks unite. Then when my daughter was in first grade, she would tell my husband and I stories about the nurse at school. We knew she wasn’t being sent to the nurse, so we asked her how she knew the nurse so well. “Oh, I go and say hi to her on my way to class in the morning.” We exchanged shocked looks to each other, half proud of her, and half scared to death that she was just out in the world making her own decisions. A few weeks later, we took her to our first school function. It was a picnic for the whole school and about five minutes in, we realized that she had wasted no time making friends. About 30 kids from all grade levels said hello to her or vice versa, she knew about 50 names, and could detail to us who all of the teachers were and what grade they taught. When we asked her how she knew all these kids, she shrugged it off and gave us a flippant “I don’t know.” After four weeks in a brand new school, she clearly had a skill that was all hers. My husband and I can turn it on when we need to, but making friends isn’t at the top of the list of things we excel at. This sweet girl had something we could learn.
Fast forward a few years, and she was faced with a new social situation that really had her freaked out. Knowing what a friendly and likeable kid she was, I encouraged her that she would be fine and reminded her that she’s great at making friends. For the next two weeks, I watched her panic, breakdown, and by the end of it, be so excited about her new group of friends. I was relieved she was through the self-doubt, and glad that our car rides were full of excitement instead of angst but was really intrigued by the series of events that got her from day 1 to day 14. Kids in general are good at coming together with people they don’t know. By the time we become adults, we’re draped in fear and insecurity and anxiety and must relearn this skill. Here’s what my nine-year-old taught me.
- Be nervous – it’s okay to be nervous. This is new, and you don’t know what to expect. Breathe into it, it’s normal.
- Cry in fear – Feel your feelings, don’t suppress them. If you want to cry because you’re afraid, cry!
- Do it anyway – There’s something worth taking this step or you wouldn’t be here in the first place.
- Be nice – Nice is always the best way to start.
- Make a joke – She’s definitely my kid. Humor breaks the ice.
- Compliment the other person – How good do you feel when someone compliments you? Find something you like immediately and share it. You’re triggering those great brain drugs of happiness in someone.
- Ask questions to find things in common – everyone is an expert about themselves. Get to know them and find something to connect to.
- Say hello and goodbye like you mean it – My daughter goes out of her way to say hello and goodbye to people. I’m constantly rushing to the car to get out of whatever situation I’m in and she’s scanning the room for how many more people she can say farewell to.
- Engage people with your whole heart and attention – When I watch her talk to people, she is 100% in. Really invest in them and give them your full attention. Don’t just hear them, listen generously to what they are saying. If you can’t relay every word (sometimes I get the exasperating privilege of hearing 9-year-old conversations word for word), then you didn’t fully listen.
- Include people in what you are doing – this is as simple as a “come with me,” or “do you want to join us.” These inclusions are key.
- Shout encouragement – Well maybe only shout if you’re playing 9-year-old soccer. You can just say it too.
- Show affection – Smiles, gratitudes, high-fives. You’ll have to decide the appropriate level of affection, but if you really want to make friends, the only way to get to Serotonin level is by showing affection in some way.
As parents we’re tasked to teach our kids a lot of things, but if you stay open, there are so many things they can teach us too.