The Friend Zone

My oldest son is about four and a half years old and his best friend is stuffed with polyfill.

Some weeks ago, we were walking to his swim class when two boys slightly older than Joshua began running from behind us. As they got closer to us, Joshua thought that a game of Everybody Runs* had begun. As the boys got closer still, Joshua joined in the game. He was having great fun until the boys ran past us and never gave him another look. Joshua slowed to a walk, and by the look on his face, his brain ran through the sequence of events to conclude that these boys were not playing with him and that he was wrong to think they were. Being four years old, he quickly moved on to other thoughts, but now, weeks later, it’s all I think about.

I am, quite possibly, the worst-equipped human being to train another in the ways of associating with people. Outside the contrivances and conveniences of school or work, I haven’t the slightest idea how to go about meeting someone new, having a conversation about something that isn’t The Weather or if I’ll be paying by cash or credit, and then building that into a rich and rewarding friendship to light my nights and warm my winters. Beyond all that, I don’t even really want new friends. I like the friends I have, I don’t have enough time to spend with them, so why get new friends who will also not see very much of me? Anyway, relationships require some shared interests or experiences, eventually both. So, how does a 4-year old, whose interests vary by the day and whose experiences are slight, make a friend?

I’m not expecting him, at 4, to make a friend he’ll keep until my funeral. But tonight, after Joshua seemed to be having a bit of fun splashing with another kid at the pool, I asked Joshua what the boy’s name was, and Joshua did not know. I know there’s got to be some middle ground between Single White Female and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the beginning of Star Wars, but I don’t know quite where it is. I always fall a little to one side or another, to the frustration and sometimes discomfort/alarm of my own friends.

I used to be more active in my local dads group. This was a good way to get the kids interacting with each other, and to spend some time with other guys doing exactly what I do. On paper, it should have been an easy way for my children and me to meet new people and build some friendships. After Jack was born, I didn’t go to many get-togethers as I hadn’t yet perfected the whole driving with an infant and a 4-year old trick yet.*** Unfortunately, I sort of got out of the habit of going, so I haven’t been to one since. That needs to change. But, like I’m living in a Beckett play, it does not.

Joshua identifies his best friend as Clifford. Yes, that Clifford. The Big Red Dog. He owns more than half a dozen Cliffords who rotate into and out of his bed as much by caprice as by whatever favors or offenses he’s imagined them to have offered. For example, Joshua spilled chocolate milk on one of them, leaving its fur matted and a bit crusty until I had a chance to clean it. This poor Clifford was not allowed to sleep in Joshua’s bed until he’d properly groomed himself. Joshua felt his fur, decided he was unclean, and tossed him aside without ever again picking him up until I delivered him, newly cleaned, back to bed. Obviously, this level of fickle socializing needs to stabilize a bit before we take it out into the proving grounds of a playdate. I can just imagine Joshua deciding that some boy or girl is different in a way that doesn’t work for him, and loudly informing me that he’s done talking to him or her.

I can teach Joshua a lot of things. I can teach him about 18th-century music education in Colonial Virginia, about properly caring for cast iron cookware, about setting up a home wireless network, buying a house, or how to very nearly catch or throw a ball. But I find myself no match for the task of teaching him to become someone’s friend. Hell, before I started writing all this, I had to look up “friends” to even see what qualities I might want to write about. (Many of my searches told me about people who lived together in a gigantic New York City apartment paid for with low wages and rather a lot of free time during the day.****) The best advice I can give him is to be as good toward other people as he can while he figures out what things he likes and likes to do. Of course, 4-year olds are not known for their selflessness, nor for their introspection. I expect Joshua to do little with this advice. But I still want him to have a friend whose eyes can blink. That’s not so much to ask.

My mother advocates public school to “socialize” children; any academic education they might receive often seems secondary to this vague notion. There’s definite merit to learning how to work with other people, particularly people who think differently, are better or worse at things than you, and who have a different set of insights or skills. Moreover, one also learns in school that the world will not conform itself to your needs or your wants as they change. School forces one to learn to adapt. But for all that, it does next to nothing to teach you how to interact with adults. Sure, it gives you a dose of interacting with authority figures, but everybody you talk to who isn’t telling you what to do is a child. Unless you plan on a career in childcare, this is poor preparation for the rest of your life. Your mechanic, your friends, your neighbors, fellow parishioners, other drivers — these will all be adults, and you’ve spent 13 years learning how to socialize with children. Sorry about that, future adult friends.

That I’m floating all around the topic of friendships without really talking about them says a lot about my comfort level with the subject. I have a few friends, and they’re very dear to me, even if I am lousy at showing it to them, or even letting them know it. This is just one more thing at which I hope that my children will be better than me, different from me, redemption of me. Sorry about that, Joshua and Jack.


*This game is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the primitive forerunner** of the Track portion of Track and Field.

**Pun intended.

***There’s an interesting wrinkle in space-time that occurs when attempting to load two young children into a car. No matter how much extra time you leave yourself, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how early you leave, and no matter how many things you have ready to go, you will still end up leaving five to ten minutes later than you’d intended.

****Note: don’t look things up on the Internet. `Tis a silly place.


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