When she gets angry at Stone or me, Ziya’s latest response is to announce that she’s not our friend. ‘You can be your own friend!’ she declared before hunching her shoulders and stomping off after I quarreled with her. ‘Daddy is not being my friend’, she accused on another occasion, giving him the look of the wounded and betrayed when she didn’t get her way. Yes, my baby is in school, practicing the complex emotions and skills compelled by social interaction. Friendship, and all that it means, has clearly become a hugely important source of connection and negotiation.
Every afternoon on our way home, as I ask her about her day, we talk about who she played with at lunchtime and what they did together. Young and Restless has nothing on the tribulations of this three year old. Some days, some of the girls include her as their friend, some days not. Some days, she says she played by herself because everyone already had a friend. Some days, she finds someone else to play with. In her circles, friendships are made and broken, alliances established and renegotiated, sides chosen and then switched with the vigor of UN Security Council horse-trading over Syria. Forget high school. If you thought that a pre-school playground was about play, think again. This is where Zi most figures out who she is, how she should or shouldn’t behave, what feelings she should articulate and to whom, and how to survive hurt, healing and tough love, which after all is the way of the world.
There are the good days when the girls make chocolate, almond, ice cream cakes, whipping up their imaginations with the mulch on the ground. They seem to spend a lot of time cooking, rather than pretending to be astronauts or even superheroes, but that’s for another column. Some days, a boy might push Zi and we practice saying no or I remind her about telling a teacher, and affirm the importance of her learning to stand up for herself. She bosses everyone around at home but turns into a mouse at school, and has to become capable of taking her comfort and confidence with her wherever she goes.
I fear for her, as any parent would, knowing that each year she will discover that life is harder than she expected and that she will have to learn to hold her head up on her own. I fear for her, knowing her vulnerabilities and softness, and wanting her to experience the safety of love for as long as she can. I also remember the situations where I had to learn to cope, make friends, go it alone, and feel good about myself through good decisions and bad. For her to excel at those life lessons, despite whatever fears, I have to continuously let go. I can ask, listen and advise, but mostly I have to just let her grow.
All a parent can do is trust that their children will figure it out as we all have to, emerging as imperfect beings, able to forgive themselves and forgive others, dust themselves off and, against all odds, optimistically move on. ‘Is it okay to make mistakes?’ she asked this morning as we drove to school. ‘Yes, of course’, I said, ‘if we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t learn. Everyone makes mistakes’. ‘Yes’, she concluded, all mini-Buddha, ‘mistakes are okay’.
And so begins another ordinary day of making friendships and making mistakes. Beyond learning to spell or colour, there are tensions and disappointments as well as resilience and joys to watch her discover.