There’s a lot of pressure at the beginning of the school year.
I’m not talking about the pressure to get organized. Or the pressure to get back into a routine. I’m not even talking about the pressure your child might feel to fit in.
I’m talking about the pressure to send your child back to school as a “good friend,” an “includer,” or an “icebreaker.”
This time of year mom bloggers write their “Dear Child On Your First Day of School” letters. The ones that beseech their young child to be a friend to the friendless, sit by the lonely, and stand up for the kids who need it.
And those letters, they’re beautiful.
In fact, a couple of years ago I was so inspired after reading a few that I sat my son down and talked with him about how important it was to be a good friend. To sit with the lonely at lunch. To stand up for the kids that might need it.
And then he came home and told me about a new girl at school who did nothing buy cry all day long because she didn’t want to be there.
So I coached him. Reminded him of how to be a friend. Gave him specific instructions to try and talk to her, to reassure her that his classroom was a good place to be, and to invite her to play with him during free time.
And then he didn’t.
So I tried harder. And every day after school I could see him dread the question: Did you talk to the new girl today?
He was ashamed.
So was I.
Why can’t I teach my son to be the child that reaches out to others? What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with me? What do we need to be doing differently?
But then I had a realization. Those letters – the ones written in beautiful, flowery language from a well-meaning mother to her invisible child – are just that. Letters.
It’s easy to write those words. It’s harder for your child to do them.
My little boy, he’s just like me. He loves his friends fiercely but that first step is a mile. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to approach that little girl in school, it was because he couldn’t
If I’m honest, it’s taken me years to get past a fear of rejection and develop the courage to try and forge friendships unencumbered. And I’m expecting my small child to be so self-assured and to simply push past his fears when I haven’t been able to do the same myself?
Not realistic. And not fair (to him).
Look, I have nothing against those “back-to-school” letters. In fact, the reason they’re so popular and people (including myself) love them is because they’re an absolute reflection of the character we want each of our children to develop.
But mamas, we have to remember that character development actually takes time to develop.
We should absolutely encourage our children to reach out to the kids who need it. We should absolutely train up our kids to stand up for what’s right.
But for most of them, it won’t be a one-and-done conversation. It will take modeling, coaching, conversations, and gentle prodding.
It will take celebrating their successes – and not berating them for their failures.
Because their personality is not a character flaw. And if their personality is not easily outgoing, you’re not going to help them develop that overnight. It will take time – maybe lots of it – to help them gain the courage to be a bridge-builder or include.
But that’s neither a failure on your part or theirs.
Mamas, expect kindness always.
But empathy takes time to grow, and for some kids that first step takes courage. If they don’t have it, they’ll develop it – but it will take time, it won’t be easy, and they’ll need your help.
And all of that takes a little more effort than simply writing a letter.
What are your best tips for encouraging your child to reach out to others?