I took my two-year-old and my five-year-old to a playground this afternoon, while my two older daughters attended their little homeschool History Club.
After a while, my five-year-old came up to me and said, “Mommy, I want to play with somebody. Somebody new. Somebody who’s not my sister. I want to make a new friend.”
There weren’t many other children at the playground: a handful of babies, the rejected two-year-old sister — and three girls who were, from the looks of them, about two years older than my daughter. Of course, these were the girls my daughter was eyeing.
“Go ahead and ask if you can play with them,” I prompted, praying silently that these “big girls” would be kind.
“I’m feeling a little shy,” she said. “Will you come with me?”
So I said I would hold her hand and come with her, but I wouldn’t speak for her — she had to do the asking.
Hand-in-hand, we approached the big girls.
Here is what my daughter said, completely on her own, in her tiny voice:
“Hi, I was wondering if I could play with you? Because I don’t have a friend here, and I’m feeling lonely.”
They were kind: They said yes. (Thankful prayer from me.)
I walked away from this exchange marveling at the beautiful request my daughter had made. It was simple, honest, and vulnerable. This is not because my daughter is anything special — of course, I think she’s something special, but really she’s just a regular kid. She said what she did precisely because she’s a regular kid, and to say anything else wouldn’t occur to her.
And then I realized that the days when my daughter can make this sort of request are numbered.
Think about it: If somebody approached you and said, “I was just wondering if we could hang out for little bit, because I don’t have a friend and I’m feeling lonely,” how would you react? I know how I would react: I’d probably make some excuse and dash off. We adults are generally too busy for this kind of neediness. If we’re honest, vulnerability freaks us out a little bit.
It’s funny: I’ve spent the first five years of each of my daughters’ lives — what will amount to twenty years’ worth of effort — encouraging, begging, pleading with them to use their words. “Please, stop screaming and just tell me what you want,” I exhort them.
But then, not too long after — by about mid-elementary school, by my estimation — we (the big “we:” society, culture, all of us) begin implicitly teaching our children to stop using their words. To put up a brave front. To not say what they want. Because in our world, to be vulnerable, to admit loneliness, is to be weak. It freaks people out. It’s tantamount to an admission of failure.
It occurs to me that a great deal of trouble — emotional distress, interpersonal strife, political discord — might be avoided if we hadn’t somehow been discouraged along the way from just using our words.