My very first BFF ("best friend forever") outside of family and play dates coordinated by my parents, was a little Italian-American girl who lived up the street named Toni. I was in kindergarten (and continued into first grade) when we became friends.
Toni had very dark brown hair that she usually wore in two ponytails on the sides of her head. I wore my hair in a similar fashion sometimes, only my hair was curly, while hers was completely straight. She had a whole playground in her back yard! (Okay, so it was one swing set, but things seem bigger when you are a child.) I don't remember if we had one at the time or if hers just had different components, but it seemed like a wonderland to me. I loved to go play at her house and we spent hours in that backyard playground together.
The thing I never liked about Toni's house is the giant St. Bernard across the street, who lived outside, chained to the house with one of those chains with giant, almost comically-sized links (because he'd chewed through most anything else). He would bark in his loud, low voice and scare the bejeebies out of me. I would always try to walk in the ditch that ran along Toni's side of the street and really hunker down as I got close enough for that dog to see me.
That dog would always see (or smell) me though and he'd start his ferocious barking and as he did, his chain would start rattling and I'd feel terrified that he was going to break free and attack me. Sometimes, I'd start crying a little bit from the anxiety that dog gave me. And I would always run like the wind from the ditch up to her front porch for that last spans between my house and hers.
But, it was all worth it. Toni was my friend and so even my worst fears wouldn't keep us apart.
We even had at least one sleepover even though we were very young. I remember it because for some reason their mom made Toni and her little sister sleep without their underpants ("to make it easier to use the potty in the night") and she'd sprinkle them with baby powder every night before bed. This was a very strange ritual to me. Toni seemed fine with it, but I had never slept partly naked and powder was only for babies and here I was away from my own home. I was given the option, but I wasn't one to want to break household rules, so I went with it. I pretended it was fine. I felt icky.
But the waking hours of that sleepover were great! Their mom allowed them to jump on the beds and they had one of those collapsible tunnels that we'd use to make obstacle courses in the girls' room. I don't remember what we ate or whether we watched television. Oh! I do remember watching the sunset on their porch with Toni's dad (and Toni and her sister). I think he worked nights, so it was another neat thing that Toni did with her dad almost every evening before he headed off to his job. I wasn't even afraid of the St. Bernard when her big, muscular, very Italian dad was out there with us. I barely knew him, but he had a way about him that represented strength and gentle care and he made me feel safe.
Though I played over at Toni's house numerous times, I think my best memories of our time together is encapsulated in that one sleepover.
That's the interesting thing I have observed about childhood friendships. These friendships are not solely based on the other person's character. At least not consciously (or without parental involvement). As children, we first become friends for different reasons.
I think when we, as children, live nearby a child close in age, the friendship is almost natural. The only time this doesn't work out is when the other child's family is so completely different than our own that we don't even know how to relate to one another. By "the family," I am also referring to their value system, their behaviors, their language, etc.
I see this pattern repeated in our own children. Our neighborhood is fairly new and as houses continue to be built and families move in, our kids make it their personal business to find out how many kids are coming with the new family and which ones are close in age with them. The boxes will still be coming into the house from the truck and our kids are on their driveway, introducing themselves, welcoming them to the neighborhood and finding out how compatible those kids are with our kids. H and Z are particularly good scouts.
After some time spent playing together over the first few days and weeks, they start to filter kids out. "He is so rude." "She isn't allowed to play outside or come over and they don't want me inside." "He tried to run me over with his bike."
It's not just our kids who do the filtering. All the kids in the neighborhood seem to coordinate their efforts on this front. "Well, Johnny doesn't like that kid, so if I want to be friends with Johnny, I can't like him either." (We have no actual kids named Johnny in our neighborhood that I know about. Maybe I should have said, Jordan, Tyler or Austin. Names like that are more typical these days.)
But because of proximity, most of these children become friends on some level because it's too inconvenient not to. They all love to play outside on bikes and skateboards and with footballs and chances are, they're going to run into one another practically every good weather afternoon. (And here in New Mexico, with such sporadic rain, it's not surprising that pouring rain actually brings a lot of kids outside to play in the puddles and show off umbrellas -- necessary tools in the other states they've moved from.)
Our next door neighbors have a girl and a boy. Z plays nonstop outside with their son and they have even mused about getting an apartment together some day when they're older. They are similar in personality and sometimes a little too rough, so there are times when we have to make them take a break from one another. While on break, both of them stare longingly out their windows, watching for their friend to come to the door to ask him to play and indicate that parents have decided the break could be over.
Their daughter is four years younger than J, but because of proximity, J goes over and plays with her almost every day (lately), for hours. J is good with younger children because she likes to be in charge of the games and her friend is the little sister, so she's used to having older kids come up with the fun to be had. J has friends her own age (and older), too, but it's because of proximity that in spite of a large age gap, this works for them.
Do our children play on sports teams? Are they in a dance class? Do they attend homeschool classes offered at the local library? Do they participate in church and youth group events? Do they go to public school?
Chances are, if your children participate in any kind of regular activities, they've got friends associated with those activities.
This makes sense, though, right? First of all, the kids have something in common: the activity. Second of all, that makes the reason for the friendship kind of fall under the category of proximity. Thirdly, I don't know many children who like to participate in an activity completely devoid of any social interaction.
Barring some disorder that makes socializing nearly impossible, the kids I know are naturally social beings. Even the shy kids would rather have someone next to them in dance class or whatever than to feel alone and isolated.
I think about every activity our kids participate in and they have at least one, if not many, friendships that might not ever happened were it not for that activity. S's best friends are from her youth group, but together they have done many activities like volunteering in various locations. H's best friends are mostly from the homeschool classes at the library or Lego Club. Z's best friends are from church (if not from the neighborhood) or sports teams of which he's been part. J's best friends are from Sunday School and dance class. O's best friends are from Sunday School.
Let's face it, kids like stuff. So if a friend of a friend has an awesome swimming pool or gaming system or giant collection of Barbies, chances are, our kids are going to find reasons to cut out the middle friend (or at least go with him or her every single time) and become friends with this blessed child. Very good friends.
When our kids come home and start talking about all the stuff their new friend has, now that they're older, I try to stop them for a moment and have them tell me something of the child's character that they appreciate. I know I can't make them stop enjoying other kids' toys, but I want to be sure that the toys aren't the only thing they focus on. I don't want our kids using other kids to get to their stuff.
I'm trying to teach them that friendship is more than stuff. Would they still be friends if a fire came and took all of that kid's stuff away and the family was destitute?
Honestly, that question stings sometimes. Even though the kids may be initially dazzled by all the stuff that kid has, it's the friendship with the other person that will make the stuff meaningful. Otherwise, kids will grow bored of the stuff eventually and stop coming over.
But I can tell when our kids actually value the friendship and time spent with the other person over the stuff. That's when I can ask about the child and they have answers for me about his or her personality, likes and dislikes or at least what they look like. If our kids know what another child looks like (and remembers his or her name), I know that value has been put on the person over the stuff he or she has.
H has a friend who is really into Lego's and who has access to a video camera so they love making stop animation movies together (I've never seen any). H has a lot of Lego's and a lot of other friends with Lego's, but the fascination with the video camera is what has him going back over there time and again. He doesn't have a video camera. His other friends don't have one. So only that particular friend allows him to really explore that interest of his.
In a way, he uses that friend for selfish reasons. However, H has talked to me many times about conversations of faith that the boys have during their time together and how that friend has really good ideas about how to do things and H learns a lot from him. So I know, while the video camera has importance and gives a motive for going over there a lot, that's not the only reason they spend time together. It was just the catalyst for more meaningful time spent.
The other thing about childhood friendships that I want to focus on here is something our family refers to as friends vs. playmates.
When our kids are very young, they don't really understand the concept of friendship. They do understand playing alongside one another and eventually playing together. Sometimes for the preschool-aged child, we might see kids playing together on the playground and ask them, "Who is your friend?"
But we know, they may never play together again (if it was a stranger met at the park) or whatever, so that "friend" is really just a playmate. A momentary stop-gap so that a child does not have to be alone. Very few of these kinds of relationships turn into actual long-term friendships (unless there is proximity or activities reasons to continue "playing" together).
As our kids get older though, we have tried to teach our kids the difference between playmates and friends.
I don't know if it stemmed from his attachment issues or what, but H has this thing where he attaches very quickly to others. He is very social. It's almost to the point sometimes where it borders on an addiction of sorts. So parting ways with a playmate makes things very difficult and sometimes awkward (especially before we started discussing with him the difference between playmates and friends).
When he was four, five, six years old, we couldn't check out in the store without him inviting the clerk over for dinner. If he played with a stranger at the park, before we left, he'd be in tears begging me to exchange numbers with the kid's parent so they could get back together again "tomorrow."
One of my sister's favorite stories about H when he was little was at a museum we visited while she was in town and we were watching an informative demonstration of sorts about monkeys and when the speaker asked if the audience had any questions, H raised his hand and asked if she was married. He didn't understand why so many people burst into laughter over his personal question. She was just a friend waiting to be made.
These situations began our regular discussions about friends vs. playmates.
Even as adults we have playmates on occasion. I think back to Election Day and spending hours and hours in line, waiting to vote. Other than my friend, SSW, stopping by unexpectedly, I was surrounded by strangers. But these strangers were in the same boat as I. So we started chatting. We talked mostly about the length of the line or how much longer we'd be in it, but then we started delving into topics of family and career. I learned a few things about the people in front and in back of me. We passed the time by chatting.
Even though we felt like we'd been through some traumatic experience together by the end, there was no offer of phone number exchange. There was no friendship connection. They were my "playmates" for the evening and maybe our paths will never cross again. I'm okay with that.
So it's not that having playmates is inferior to having friendships, I think they are both necessary in life. The hard part is helping our kids understand the difference so that I don't end up with a lot of phone numbers in my contacts for people I never intend to contact.
It's important to them to know that it's okay to spend casual time with someone if an opportunity arises -- even meaningful time. I've randomly felt compelled to share about my faith with someone I have only known five minutes and may never speak to again. Ha! Sometimes that makes me feel even safer. But it doesn't always mean that we are going to call each other up every day and buy each other Christmas presents.
So, to finish up this post, I will tell you that I lost contact with Toni almost immediately after my family moved away. Sometimes I still wonder about her though and what her life has become. That's how I know that she was placed in my life as a childhood friend and not just a playmate or just someone with a really cool swing set and a collapsible tunnel. Though I can't tell you a lot about her character (I can make some assumptions if pressed), we always shared special times together. I cared about her and even today, she finds her way into some of my prayers. I wonder if I'm in any of hers.