Finding a best friend is a sweet childhood rite of passage that most children get to experience at least once in their youth. That rich experience of having someone who loves what you love, gets your jokes, likes your style, and holds your secrets close. My daughter is good at making friends, has a circle of devoted friends, and a dearly loved best friend. Her life whirls around social gatherings, play dates, and sleepovers. Our house is often filled with giggling girls sharing the joy of growing up, experimenting with friendship, and learning how to be socially successful.
However, finding friends for my son has been a much more difficult road. He is a likeable kid, quirky, but friendly, sweet, and cooperative. He has been in a twin’s playgroup since he was six months old, in a homeschool group for a few years, and plays with neighborhood kids regularly. Yet for years, he just didn’t connect with other kids. When all his little friends were into Batman and Spiderman, he was into electrical circuits and chemistry; when they moved onto team sports, he moved onto cellular automation and mathematics. As other boys were putting up posters in their rooms of their super heroes and sports stars our son had posters of his heroes, Einstein and Tesla, and a large scale periodic table of elements. He just wasn’t in sync with his age peers.
He was invited to a neighbor boy’s 5th birthday party. The guests were playing pin the spider on Spiderman, but my son did not want to join in the game because he thought it was pointless (the prizes were not something he wanted and he is not competitive). Despite our urging him to join in he opted to sit off to the side making words from a box of plastic letters. When the game was finished, one of the boys walked over to see what my son was doing. When he saw the words my son had produced (many of them well beyond kindergarten level) he swept his arm across the table scattering the words and telling my son that he was stupid. My son freaked out, pushed him down, began to yell at him for destroying his efforts, and then burst into tears. The other boy called him a name and ran away to play with the rest of the boys, while my son, upset at the injustice of it all, just wanted to go home.
When my son turned six, we decided to try a very low key Lego birthday party where the boys could just play with, and build onto, a Lego city my husband built. We invited eighteen boys from his kindergarten class and his twin’s playgroup, rented a clubhouse to ensure we had plenty of space, and ordered a Lego blue “2 x 3 brick” cake. Only six boys came to the party and most of them didn’t even notice my son throughout the party. Even though we had tried to make it fun, non-competitive, and easy, my son still struggled to interact with his guests. He tried to tell them the history of Lego, point out the fatal flaws in their structures, and show them the mechanics of rolling vehicles. Of course none of them were receptive to his overtures and the social demands of trying to connect with these boys began to wear on my son. His stress level rose as the party continued and he had a meltdown. After the party was over he told us that he hated birthdays, didn’t want to attend any more parties, or ever have another birthday party.
When he plays with the neighborhood kids, he commits social suicide on a regular basis. For example, we got a new trampoline and he was very adamant that we shouldn’t buy one because they are too dangerous. I had him help me assemble it and pointed out all the safety features of this trampoline as we worked. He finally agreed to try it out and after a few hours became more comfortable with the idea of jumping on it. However, he read the safety manual cover to cover and began to obsess over using the trampoline safely. He even posted a sign, in his writing, at the entrance that stated “This trampoline has been inspected for safety.” Once he knew the rules, he began to enforce them. If more than two children were on it at a time he yelled at them to get off and then ran and told me that they were breaking the rules. If someone bounced off the net or tried to do a somersault he got upset to the point of tears. He even tried to physically block kids from getting on the trampoline if he felt they weren’t taking the rules seriously. Consequently, in the neighbor kids’ eyes, he is an uptight little tattle tale.
In kindergarten, he had trouble making the connection between his actions and the resulting reaction. He was very stressed about school and wanted to stay near his sister all the time. He couldn’t understand why someone would get upset if he butted in line to stand next to her. He was hurt and bewildered when his sister told him to stop following her around. He didn’t see why his fellow students got mad when he helped them with their school work by pointing out their mistakes. He didn’t understand that the teacher didn’t want a running commentary on every subject she brought up. He didn’t get why the other kids were not interested in his explanation of the geometry behind what they were building with K’nex. In short, he felt like his best efforts to be friendly were rebuffed by everyone. He told me at the end of kindergarten that he didn’t have any friends and he didn’t think he ever would.
We felt desperate to help our son, but began to fear he was right about finding a friend. Then we found out about a gifted homeschoolers group and began to take various classes and attend activities with other families with gifted children. For the first time our son met other kids who loved geography, physics, astronomy, chemistry, chess, and math. He found friends who understood what he was saying and could build on his ideas. When they played, he was in the middle of the pack instead of staying on the sidelines. His new friends didn’t think he was a geek for worrying about safety; they were all just as cautious. They didn’t give him weird looks when he talked about the fourth dimension or the biochemical needs of the human body. They told him other cool stuff he didn’t already know. They read the same books he’d read and gave him suggestions for books they thought he’d like. They got excited about his book suggestions for them. He actually began to look forward to play dates and to say he had friends. He even occasionally attended their birthdays, joined in the fun, and had a good time. He is finally experiencing the reward for all the social training we have forced upon him. I know he has a lot to offer those special friends he will make over the years. We are grateful that he has finally connected with kids who don’t bat an eye at his social awkwardness, but instead see the wonderful possibilities of friendship with our son.