Friendship is so much easier when you are two. The climb to popularity is easy. The rules are simple: Chew the toys and not your friends. Don't chew the toys until your friends are done playing with them. Share your Goldfish crackers and Cheerios with everyone.
Preschool and Kindergarten dynamics aren't that much more complex. Sprinkle in a pinch of age-appropriate electronic stimulation via television, computer time or hand-held Leapster device, add a fistful of Pirate's Booty, and non-watered down 100% juice in a plastic cup sans the lid and Bam! You are the King of the playground, especially if you have an actual play-set in your backyard.
And then, first grade hits. Mom and Dad are no longer there to guide friend selection and offer sugary bribes to the cool kid holding court under the monkey bars so he will play with you. Suddenly, the students in the cafeteria are dismissed and chaos reigns the blacktop at recess. It's all up to your kid with his sticking-in-every-direction-cowlick, face full of freckles and glasses that have been stepped on so many times that they will never sit properly on his nose again. He will make friends on his own time table. As parents, all we can do is wring our hands behind closed doors and pray that he chooses wisely.
I have tried not to pass any of my insecurities or fears to my children, but it appears that someone had poked holes in my filter and fear, anxiety and a whole lot of serial-killer-clown-phobia passed from my body through the umbilical cord into Phillip, my middle child. Phillip has always been a sensitive child. He is the child with a temperament closest to mine. We are forever connected by an unnamed feeling originating in the pit of the stomach, which slows us down when others would rush into something and makes us observe from afar until we are comfortable enough to join. So it is not an exaggeration when I state that it took years for my son to expand his circle of friends beyond those I carefully hand-picked for him as a toddler.
After years of interviewing candidates for friendship, testing those possible candidates at recess and discussing at length each child's strengths and weaknesses with me each night, Phillip bravely started inviting other boys over to our house. I tried to approach the new motley assortment of rascals with excitement, but it was difficult, for I knew that each new friendship was a risk.
They started to arrive in all shapes, sizes, and intelligence levels. I immediately began sorting them, placing them in categories and ranking their long-term friendship potential. I'll admit that I was not unbiased in my approach -- I've always been a sucker for super-intelligent nerds, which perfectly suited Phillip's many strengths, as his anxious tendencies are balanced with an astuteness and intelligence beyond his years.
And then Joey showed up at our door.
Joey walked across the threshold of our home oozing with athleticism, personality, good looks and charisma. And with a clairvoyance that only a parent can develop, I saw the approaching freight train and could only pray that Phillip jumped off the tracks before he was smashed to pieces.
In the months that followed, Joey proved that my initial mommy instincts were correct. He never called Phillip nor invited Phillip over to his house even though I would hear from other moms at church that Joey was always inviting their kids over. But their kids were like Joey, shiny and sparkly and gregarious, and my sweet, shy, bespectacled Phillip continued to make excuses for Joey's lack of reciprocity. I wanted to punch that Joey every time he showed up at my house to eat my snacks and play video games. During the last year, I have tried many things including outright bribery to dissuade Phillip from his friendship with Joey. Phillip is much more loyal than I will ever be.
And then a couple of months ago, even I couldn't protect Phillip from the inevitable.
The weekend was deemed "sleep-over weekend" where each of my children would have a friend sleep-over. I had planned a movie-watching, popcorn and candy eating extravaganza for the kids and their friends, but each child could only invite one friend. Cass, who is happy and secure with her group of friends, decided to pass and plan a future "girls-only" event. Brooks, who collects friends like trading cards, stacks them in his room and would probably trade you one for a piece of gum, chose the first name that popped into his head five seconds before I even finished my sentence. Phillip agonized over what he perceived to be a Sophie's Choice decision and asked how I could possibly ask him to choose just one of his friends. I suggested my favorite four friends of his, praying that he would pick one of them instead of that darn Joey. Phillip just couldn't decide and sleep-over weekend was rapidly approaching.
On Friday morning, I pulled Phillip aside. It was time to make his choice. And then the doorbell rang. And that darn Joey was standing there. (How could I have forgotten that Phillip had invited darn Joey over after mass the weekend before?!) And Phillip invited him to join us for sleep-over weekend.
Phillip: "Hey, Joey! Do you want to sleep over tonight?"
Joey: "Well ... maybe. I think that Sam might ask his mom if I can come to his house."
Phillip: "O.K. Let me know later."
The boys exit stage left and climb the stairs to Phillip's bedroom. I angrily slam the front door and consult with my husband. Should we pull Phillip aside and explain what that little shit just pulled? Should we have Phillip "un-invite" Joey? Should Phillip invite another more reliable friend? Should I call a neighborhood kid and plan a contingency plan? Or should we just let it all play out, knowing that the end result would most likely hurt our son?
We chose to remain silent and take off his training wheels.
Darn Joey was darn Joey that night. He never mentioned the sleep-over invitation to his mother when she picked him up at lunch time. He never called later that afternoon or evening. Phillip waited for the phone to ring. Phillip waited for the knock on our door. Even as Brooks and his friend ran around our house, ate pizza, and played video games, Phillip remained hopeful. At 9:00 p.m. as the movie started, Phillip finally realized that darn Joey was not showing up. The brilliant light in his velvet gray eyes faded and the deep hurt of Phillip's first betrayal emanated from the caverns of his soul. Tears, magnified by thin lenses, poured soundlessly down his cheeks. My heart broke right along with his as I gathered his lanky body into my arms and my tears mixed with his.
So that night while Cassie IM'ed friends on facebook and Brooks laughed with his adorable, sweet, flavor-of-the-month friend, I told Phillip about the times that I, too, have been distracted by shiny, sparkly people. Some of those relationships lasted only months, and I emerged unscathed. But it was the friendships that sustained for years before I realized their toxicity that still burns. And I wanted to tell Phillip that things will be easier as he gets older. That he will now develop some super-spidey-sense to sift all potential friends and eliminate the bad ones before they can hurt him.
But I couldn't tell him any of that. Instead, I told him the truth -- sometimes people suck, and not all friendships last forever.
I sat there with him, still recovering from a recent betrayal by someone whom I thought was my friend for years. At 34, my own super-spidey-sense has yet to kick in and I still get burned.
And in the following weeks, Phillip focused on the boys that are his true friends: the boys who routinely call our house, invite him to their houses, pick him first as a partner on school projects, and treat him with the dignity and respect that he deserves. Phillip needed to fall and get hurt to notice the hands that were outstretched to pull him back up again.