Making Friends Is the Business of Childhood

Kids fishing with new friends
My kids catching crayfish with some kids they met ten minutes ago. Image: Amy M. Weir

I am writing this at a self-styled “Family Campground,” a place with a large playground, pool, and scheduled activities—there’s a barrel train driving by at the moment. We have been here slightly over 28 hours, and already all the several-dozen kids on the grounds seem to all know each other by name. Well, my kids never seem to remember any names, but it doesn’t make much difference—they play as if surrounded by lifelong friends.

The promise of s’mores can’t even drag them back from the playground. A girl at the next site over, who comes to this campground relatively often, expressed resigned frustration when she found out we’re leaving tomorrow. “I always make so many friends here,” she told me, “and they’re always gone the next day!”

It’s slightly bewildering, as an adult—as a highly introverted adult—to watch my kids interact with others their age this summer, at playgrounds, picnics, library programs: if there are kids, they will make friends. It seems like the business of childhood, this social connecting. You meet the eyes of another kid at a grownup party, someone you’ve never met before and might never meet again, and your eyes say, “The kid that is me recognizes and acknowledges the kid that is you: let’s play.”

Granted, I wasn’t great at this, as a kid. My M.O. was to watch other kids until I felt comfortable, which always seemed to be right before it was time to leave. But I still felt, instinctively, that this was something I must do. My daughter is far more extroverted than I am, but even my introverted son keeps running back to us, beaming and blabbering about the game he’s playing with the others, and you ask, “So what are their names?” and he answers, “I don’t know, bye, I have to get back to the game!” and he runs off again.

How is it so easy for them? What is it about being a kid that makes it so easy to connect? “Just proves that prejudice is learned through life experience,” my husband said sagely when I mentioned it. I guess there’s that. We’ve—especially geeks—been burned in social interactions enough by this point that we really can’t help eyeing people with suspicion: do we possibly have anything in common? This doesn’t seem to even cross the minds of kids. SURE we have something in common. We’re all KIDS.

But that can’t be all of it. Sometimes it’s easy enough to tell I have something in common with another grownup, beyond being a grownup, or a parent, or a person living in the same town. I’ve observed more than a few library patrons whose friend-potential is obvious based solely on their excellent taste in books. The mother of one of my son’s best friends managed to raise her children to be proper Beatlemaniacs even more successfully than I, which is an automatic win. Am I actually friends with any of these people? Friendly acquaintances, yes. Friends, no.

One morning, the winter before last, we missed the school bus. I herded the kids toward my car, which had been parked on the street since before the last snowstorm, a slight thaw, and a refreeze. The tires were iced into the street. I salted, I chipped, I spun my wheels, but I couldn’t get my car out of that spot. It was time for school to start when I noticed the neighbors’ 4×4 in their spotlessly clear driveway and decided we might have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Bilbo keychain
Bilbo wants to be your friend. His face is worn off, though. He’s also lost an arm since this picture was taken.

Not that our neighbors were entirely strangers. They’d moved in the year before and were friendly enough to always say hello when we were out at once. I was pretty sure we had been properly introduced but I couldn’t remember any of their names except the little boy, a toddler who was infatuated with my kindergartener.

But his mother cheerfully agreed to give us a lift to the school, and as we rode we chatted. I noted the Lego Boba Fett hanging from her keys. “I’ve got Lego Bilbo Baggins on mine,” I told her.

“Awesome!” she said and nodded toward her son. “He was Bilbo Baggins for Halloween this year!” Thus is the importance of flaunting your geekdom: it gives you icebreakers.

Not literally, or we wouldn’t be in this situation. But anyhow.

Well, that went well, I thought as she dropped me off back home. She’d been so happy to help that I didn’t feel awkward or guilty about it. And she was clearly another geek-mom. Our families could probably become quite good friends. And the thought terrified me.

A year and a half later, we are still no closer than waving and chatting whenever we happen to be outside at the same time. And I still can’t remember her name. What, like I should invite her over for tea and cakes? That would require us to converse!

But the need for friendship isn’t any less in adulthood than in childhood. Being friends with your neighbors is handy, whether your car is iced to the street or your kids need an emergency babysitter. Where has this connecting instinct gone when I need it?

Okay, maybe it is just me and my social anxiety. Maybe other people don’t have any problem connecting. Or did I always just rely on other people to make the first move toward friendship as a child, too? In which case, maybe other people don’t care about connecting anymore, either?

I remember being terrified at the thought of having to make new friends when I started college and somehow found myself with six new friends by dinnertime of my first day on campus (two of whom have remained my good friends, and another of whom I at least chat with on Facebook occasionally). I realized it was because everyone there had to make new friends: it wasn’t just me coming into an established group and trying to find my place. In adulthood, there’s always already an established social order, no matter whether you’re the New Kid or the Old Guard. The openness just isn’t there.

But in childhood, it’s all wide open. Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier. Maybe that’s how, two weeks later at another campground, this one tiny and organized-activity-less, my kids have still managed to find the only other two kids on the grounds within the first hour and they’re all fishing for crayfish* together.

I envy it, I guess. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to expend the energy it takes to make friends. But part of me wishes it was as easy as looking someone in the eye and wordlessly kything, “Hey, the human being that is me recognizes and acknowledges the human being that is you. Let’s play.”

*Technically, they were trying to fish for actual fish, but considering this is a small stream in the mountains, they’re mostly just catching crayfish. Which they all insist are actually crabs.

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Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 10yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 8yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.