Wednesday, March 31, 2010

144 days to Bar Mitzvah: teenagers choosing friends

You can pick your friends but you can't pick your family. You can't pick your child's friends, nor can you pick his nose, though you can lick your finger and wipe it on his face to get rid of smeared-on chocolate until he's about four. After that, he'll get embarassed and possibly grossed-out.

Even if the child in question has a penchant for using the bathroom with the door wide open long past the age where decorum demands that it close.

I think we lost the ability to pre-chose our child's friends right about the time our playdate role evolved from emcee to caterer. Somewhere around that time we realized with sadness and horror that we could no longer just toss our child into a any room full of similarly-aged children and assume he'd have fun.

If they time it right, new parents can have it easy: when the Jawa was born, any worries we had about becoming outcasts quickly dissolved when Flush Puppy came to our apartment to tell us that now she was pregnant. For the first two years of his life, then, the Jawa had a built-in best friend, assuring his parents of quality time with adults they'd hand-picked as core members of their posse years before.

Those first few years were gravy. When you're a new parent, anyone who is also a new parent is instantly your friend. Any gaps in worldviews or life experiences were instantly bridged by the common factor of parenthood.

Even in preschool, which the Jawa entered upon arriving in San Francisco after several tense weeks of jockeying to get him into the "right" preschool, because, naturally, the right preschool would begin a cycle that ends with him triumphantly holding a Harvard diploma aloft on graduation day, we still managed to find ways to guarantee his inner circle matched ours.

Those were glorious days of Sunday brunches and long dinner potlucks, of shared pictures showing handsome, happy families in total sync. It was a halcyon time, ready-made for slide shows and photo albums. You can't tell me that the Jawa suffered by our social machinations. Almost a decade later, he's reserved a seat at his Bar Mitzvah table for at least one of his old preschool chums, now a text buddy in permanent glorious exile in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He also still emails his original best friend in Seattle, casually asking about her love life and offering tips on what to wear to a Bar Mitzvah.

The first signs that you have lost control come not in kindergarten but in first grade. Everyone's still in shock that first year. Parents arrive at the beginning of the school day and hang around for fifteen minutes after the bell has rung. We're all five years into being parents, so the shock hasn't yet worn off. We're still looking for life rings to keep our heads above water.

Kindergarten seemed like an extension of preschool. We pored over our new cohort, choosing from a smorgasbord of potential new friends. Whoever we chose to integrate into our lives came with their own five-year-olds, built-in best friends for our Jawa. Boys, girls, it didn't matter. Everyone got along.

And then came first grade and with it the first stirrings of independence. Sure, we were still experimenting in social engineering, but about halfway through the year we began to notice that our multi-family potlucks weren't always a ball of fun for the kids. You couldn't just throw them all together and expect the best anymore. They all had their own interests, and wer starting to develop their own friendships.

We knew things were changing when he refused to bring his toys to the home of friends who had (younger) twin boys. "They'll chew on them," he said, simply.

It's not that we worried too deeply about the Jawa's ability to make friends. It was more that we'd really enjoyed having his friends be the children of our friends. This new order -- where the Jawa appears ten minutes before our scheduled dinner date and announces that our friends' kids are too young (or are girls) and he's going to be bored -- well, that's a pretty big monkey wrench thrown into a previously smoothly-running operation.

And then there was the added complication of watching him butt heads with kids who were once his friends but, for whatever reason, no longer shared that warm vibe. Or kids whose friendship, on some level, drove the Jawa insane. Some years, I will admit, there were whispered asides to school counselors, suggesting that the Jawa might be more likely to thrive were he not in the same class as certain boys.

On the flip side, we stood on the sidelines and watched as he didn't become friends with kids we really liked, or kids whose parents we really liked. For a few years, we would accept or extend dinner invitations and hold our breath that the kids would find a way to pass the evening together, even though they ran in different crowds at school.

Eight years at the same school makes for a dazzling anthropologic study. That's enough time for kids to basically run through the entire class roster, being casual acquaintences for years then suddenly exploding into intense friendship for a month before drifting apart again.

I never had to address that sort of situation. We moved across the country right about the time I started figuring that, although we'd been hanging out since infancy, I didn't have a lot in common with David Brauer. By the time we got to California, the parental social spell was shattered and I was on my own. Interactions between parents were very limited.

Today, it is clearly established that we have no power over the Jawa's social life, which doesn't mean we don't gnash our teeth from the sidelines. The thousands of times I have been called shallow and pointedly corrected by well-meaning contemporaries for worrying about my son's social standing have done nothing to ease my concern. Having been both an outcast and an insider, I know how much the latter kicks the former's butt. Soundly.

On Monday, we attended a seder dinner hosted by a family we've lately been hanging out with. By "we" I mean Sandra Bullock and I. Their son doesn't travel in the same circles as ours, which secretly breaks our collective hearts because we really like their son.

On Monday, arrived at the tail end of a playdate. The Jawa was walking into a situation where two good friends -- guys he knows from school but doesn't eat lunch with, play sports with, get in trouble in class with -- had been hanging out all day, speaking in the brand of teenage boy shorthand particular to close friends. I was worried. Would the Jawa try to impress them with a barrage of Disneyland trivia, only to be rebuffed? Would he nervously expound on the design features of duct tape wallets?

Worse yet, would he sit there, sullen and impatient, waiting for the night to end?

I worry too much. He was fine. These kids, after all, have known each other for longer than they have not. Even the most distant of them have managed to accumulate a few shared experiences since kindergarten.

This may be an outsider's opinion, but I think Brandeis Hillel Day School is fairly clique-free. At least among the boys. I haven't had the slightest idea of what goes on in Girl World since about third grade. Among the boys, at least, it works. You can show up as the third wheel at someone's Passover seder and still have a good time.

And thank you, God, for inventing the Wii.

Next comes high school and an entire roster of new friends whose parents will probably never be anything more than an idling car, a benchmark and, eyes squeezed shut blocking our reality, a post-curfew phone call or designated driver ride home. The big picture is equal parts freedom and losing control.

1 comment:

Butter Goats said...

Gawd! Finally a mention in the blog. It brings a tear to my eye.