“How was your day?” I asked 8-year-old K as we walked home.
Okay,” she answered automatically and then retracted, “Well, sort of not okay.”
“What happened?” I asked very casually.
“I had no one to sit with at lunch and then I couldn’t find anyone to play with at recess. Everyone ran away from me.”
Of course, this type of statement sends a Jewish mom running to find a therapist. (For my kid, if not for myself). But I am not the same person I was before I did ludicrous amounts of research for my book on bullying, and I instantly recalled a conversation I had with Dr. Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain and Mom, They’re Teasing Me, among others.
“Don’t interview for pain,” Thompson told me. “Don’t ask questions that lead your child to tell a story of victimization. Find a way for her to tell a story of strength and solutions. And do not ask every single day how things went that day.”
With that in mind, I bit my tongue and avoided asking the outright questions, “What happened? Did you have a fight with someone? Who did your friends sit with at lunch?”
Instead, I asked K what her favorite part of her lunch was (Hershey kisses). “Did anyone else at your table have a chocolate dessert?” I asked, and she explained that all of her friends were crowded together at another table and they said there was no room for her, so she went to a different table and sat on a bench by herself.
“That happens sometimes,” I mused. “It isn’t very fun, but it gives you a chance to find someone new to talk to. Your whole class can’t fit at one table, so there must have been some people at the second table sitting across from you on the other bench.”
There were. She named a few kids who she doesn’t hang out with much, and my guess is she retreated into her own world while she ate.
“Well, K,” I suggested, “If you find yourself at a table with them again, what is something you would like to talk about?”
She thought about a few things that could be conversation starters. I could see how Michael Thompson was right, because our conversation was focused on ways to make the situation better, as opposed to me prying about why her friends didn’t want to sit with her. My first inclination was to ask questions that would have made K feel like there was something wrong with her, but with Thompson’s voice in my ears, I avoided that minefield.
Then we started talking about recess.
“I kept going up to groups of people to play, but they ran off.”
“Like they were playing tag, and you were It?” I wondered.
“No, it wasn’t a game. They just wanted to play by themselves.”
For a moment, I was stumped. How could I respond? And why didn’t they want to play with K? But before my own anxiety could rise too much, I remembered that K had been the odd woman out at lunch, and sometimes if a kid isn’t already part of a group during the transition from lunch to recess, then there is an increased likelihood that the kid will have a harder time at recess, too. It was not surprising that K had a rough afternoon; she got into a bit of a pickle and couldn’t seem to shake it. Not the end of the world, just a bad afternoon. No need to overreact.
“So, what did you decide to do with yourself during recess? Did you climb? Go on the swings? I really like to have time to myself, actually,” I told her.
"Well,” she began to giggle, “I created two imaginary friends named Sarah and Sally, and we pretended that a monster was trying to knock us down the slide.”
Should I be sad that my daughter had to invent imaginary friends? Or should I be glad that she found a way to manage the situation? Better to focus on the positives and give her approval for doing something constructive.
“Sounds fun,” I commented.
“It was!” she said. During the rest of the walk home, she talked animatedly about Sarah and Sally, and we invited them into the house to have a snack with us. There was no moping, no sadness, no self-pity about the afternoon.
As I sit here overanalyzing my child’s life (a requirement for a mom) instead of getting ready for bed, I am left with two thoughts. One is that I am really grateful to have some tools to help me discuss painful social encounters with my daughter.
The second is that I will monitor the situation by checking in with K in a few days to see how lunch and recess are going. Imaginary friends are a good solution for an occasional rough afternoon, which is all this probably was, but not a good long-term plan.
Honestly, K seems to be doing fine. She is excited to go to school in the mornings; she gets invited to play dates regularly, and she goes to birthday parties. These are all ways that parents can reassure themselves that a kid is functioning well socially.
Chances are, a week from now, this will be another data point in the ups and downs of the social life of a second-grader.
I'll remind myself of that as I sprinkle ativan in my coffee until this resolves.
This article first appeared on Carrie Goldman's ChicagoNow blog, Portrait of an Adoption, on 2/23/12.