This weekend, I drove Oliver and Claire to the city. We had lunch with Uncle Brian in Glen Park, then went to Dolores Park to meet up with Caryn and Lexi. Bri couldn’t bring Mister and Pippi, Noelle’s dogs he was babysitting, into the playground area, so he hovered outside the perimeter while I watched Claire and lost sight of Oli.
Claire tottered over towards our neighbor, a middle-aged tattooed woman with a parasol, keeping her cool on a hot day. Claire started playing with the shovel and bucket by her side, toys her son had left when he went off in search of fun. We made small talk, of the playground variety (ages of children, comfort with the communal nature of toys at a playground), and Lexi and Caryn came and visited.
While Caryn was out talking to Bri and Lexi was entertaining Claire, the woman’s son sulked back to her,. He looked a little older than Oli, who was off God knows where. “Mom, I’m bored!” he complained, “I don’t’ have any friends here.” “Oh Anthony,” she replied, “but there’s so much to do here.” “But I don’t know anyone!” “Yes, well you usually come with Gregory or Michael and they’re not here today…” she agreed.
It’s so hard to make friends if a kid doesn’t know how. I’ve coached many on the process, and while there are trends and strategies, it’s just a bummer to see a child upset that he doesn’t have any friends simply because he doesn’t officially know anyone. There were hundreds of kids running around the playground that day. Sometimes, you just need a little nudge in the right direction to turn things around.
Just then, Oli jogged nearby, still in one piece, not bleeding. “Hey Oli!” I called out. He turned our way, “What, Papa!” “This boy doesn’t have any friends. His name is Anthony.” Oli looked at the boy and gravitated toward him. “This is Oliver, Anthony,” I said to the boy, who looked at Oliver with interest. He brightened up, “Do you want to be my friend?” he asked Oli. “Yes!” he replied, delighted, and starting to hop with excitement. “Are you five?” Anthony asked, fully excited now.
There was a definite pause, and though I didn’t see them, I like to think that Oli’s eyes shifted from left to right before he answered, “Yes!” and the two went running off to the sand area. Anthony’s mom, understandably, was happy. I feel like since I’ve worked with kids my whole life, this sort of thing is common sense for me. A kid’s having a hard time? Find another kid and use him to help cheer the first one up. It often works a heck of a lot better than an adult trying to cheer him up. And I feel no guilt over using my son’s outgoing personality for the powers of good.
When I went over to extract Oliver from the swarm of kids he and Anthony had gathered, he protested, and Anthony protested. “He’s just the best friend I’ve ever had,” Anthony claimed. Maybe he’s a five year old who’s prone to hyperbole, but I like to believe that he was really affected by the easy way he and Oliver became friends. He begged me to follow up with a playdate, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. Not when Claire was overtired and crying, and we weren’t going to make it up to Dolores Park on a regular basis for the foreseeable future. It was enough.
A few days later, on our way to Bing, we stopped at Edgewood to wait for the turning cars, near the corner where the same crossing guard stands every day of the school year. When I’m driving by, on my way to work, sometimes I wave to him. He might wave back. Mostly I don’t though. Oliver immediately rolled down his window and shouted to the crossing guard, “Hey! I have a new Lego! It’s Avengers!” As the guy tried to say something exclamatory, Oliver rolled on, “And I have a Lord of the Rings Lego! And it has Gollum!” By this time, we’d started turning. “Well goodbye!” Oliver shouted at the man. The crossing guard never got a word out, or at least one that was louder than Oliver’s voice.
Oli rolled up the window, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and resumed rubbing Nana’s tag. I shook my head. “Oli? How do you do it? I asked facetiously. “How are you so good at making friends?” “I put them on my Know List,” he answered. “Your No List?” I asked. “Yeah, my Know List. If I know them, I put them on my Know List.” “And then you’re friends?” I asked. “Yes.”
I marveled at that for awhile. I like to think of a big list in Oli’s head, filled with thousands of names – all his friends. To add to the list is as easy as making contact with someone else. I’m probably way off mark, because how do you make sense out of a child’s mysterious cognitive process? Is it even fair for me to apply my adult logic to his social system? If so, if I’m close to the mark, it warms my heart to know that Anthony and the crossing guard are the newest names on that list.