A lesson in making friends from a three year old

Yesterday I was walking with K to go see if there were any pinecones ripe for picking in the forest.  On the way, we passed a small playground that was bustling with kids.  The hunt for pinecones was off as K now focused on playing with these other kids.

The playground was a simple structure consisting of two tire-swings and a slide all on a sandy area.  It was surrounded on all sides by small apartment buildings and had an adjoining grassy area where a couple of fathers were out BBQing.  There were about ten kids on the playground or the surrounding area, mostly all older than K, and all of them were Swedish speakers.

During our first weekend in Sweden, K and I took a similar walk where we found a playground with kids and K insisted on going in to make some friends.  Then too none of the kids spoke English and K’s attempts to engage were rebuffed.  I remember watching him try and try and feeling heartbroken when the other kids kept refusing to play with him.

As we approached this playground, I was preparing myself for another sad experience and told K that he could go on the slide a few times, but that we could still go into the forest to hunt for pinecones.  He said no and insisted on staying.  Once we made it to the sandy play area, K got a bit shy and hesitant and instead of encouraging him to go and engage, I was suggesting that we could simply keep going on to the safety of the forest.  K still refused.  He stood there and watched the kids play.  Off to one side there was a wooden beam that we started to walk along, balancing and going back and forth.  After a few times of doing this, a young boy, who I later learned was six years old, came over to initiate contact with K.

The boy came up and asked a few things in Swedish that I could not make out.  K got very shy and put his head down and didn’t make eye contact.  I used my limited Swedish to introduce ourselves and explain that K did not speak any Swedish.  The boy went away.  Again, I asked K if it would be better to go into the forest and hunt pinecones.  He continued to refuse; so we walked up and down the wooden beam some more.  The boy came back.  He tried again to ask us a few questions, to which I shared more information about K.  The boy stuck out his hand to K to shake and K did not respond.  I explained to K that this boy was trying to be his friend and wanted to shake hands.  K tentatively reached out and they shook.

Immediately K lit up and started talking to the boy.  The boy couldn’t respond but said something about his cycklar (bicycle).  He then led us off to the side to look at his bicycle and K was happy as could be to look at it, ring the bell, and make comments about it.  By this time, the boy’s older sister joined us and she was able to speak a little English, so between the two of us we were able to translate a limited conversation between the two boys.

Soon, the boy was running off to get his helmet to show K how well the bike rode.  K ran after the boy as they rode/ran circles around the play area.  Obviously K could not keep that up for long, so he stopped; but the boy kept riding until he had to go with his mom and sister somewhere.

But no K was ready to engage.  He walked right up to two other kids playing in the sand and started to dig alongside them.  But, soon they left him and did there own thing, but K was okay just digging.  I had drifted off to the side to sit and watch from a distance to allow K his space.  Soon there was another little girl, probably a bit younger with K, whom K was trying to chat up.  She had a startled look about her and once she realized she could not communicate, she took off.  But K would not leave it at that.  He began to chase her.  Okay, some kids love to chase, but the scared look on this little girls face belied the fact that she was not exactly a willing party to this activity.  The look of fear might also have increased because by now K had acquired a stick (standard play equipment for any little kid), so he was chasing her…while running and swinging a stick around.  She bolted off the play area and took off the over the grassy field toward one of the BBQ stations.  K was right on her heals.  I was also fast in pursuit as I see impeding disaster about to take place.  The knots of parents and community adults socializing outside started to take notice of one larger little boy swinging a stick and chasing after a fairly visible scared little girl…and international incident was on the brink of erupting.  But, the girl safely made it to the adult and other kids near the BBQ pit.  K slowed on his approach and I was able to catch up and offered to hold the stick.  K joined the group of older kids that the little girl was hiding among.  As soon as K joined, she took off and as K was about to run after her again, I was able to entice K to stay and talk to these other kids.

Again, no English, but I was able to help facilitate a little conversation with my Swedish.  The other adult helped a little bit too.  But soon K and I were drifting back to the playground.  This time, I was more insisted that we leave, but K still would not have any of it.  So he sat in the dirt and began digging again…and no kids joined him.

At this point, I really want to leave.  I was feeling very frustrated for K and sad that all he wanted to do was play with these kids but could not.  Wanting to save him from this rejection and awkwardness I was arguing with K why we should leave.  My wife, a very brilliant lady – especially regarding young kids – informed me that at K’s age, he does not have the same perception and feelings that I do.  He was not feeling awkward or uncomfortable, he was probably perfectly content sitting and digging in the sand by himself.  On the other hand, I know that he wanted to play with the kids, so who knows.

Just before I was about to pull the plug, another little boy from K’s preschool arrived.  They knew each other and could communicate and so for the next twenty minutes K was able to play with a friend before we really had to leave.

For myself, I am still trying to reflect and learn from this experience.  I realize that I need to be careful about not superimposing my own feelings and anxieties on my son, and to trust him that he is okay if he wants to stay and continue to play, even if none of the kids are engaging with him.  I also had a chance to observe some of the cross-cultural theory I have studied in practice.  Dr. William Gudykunst has developed the Anxiety/uncertainty management theory, which essentially states that in a cross-cultural interaction of ones anxiety is too high, they will freeze, shut down, or flee the situation; but, once there was been some positive experiences, the anxiety will reduce and the person will begin engaging.

This experience was a textbook case of this.  K wanted to engage, but froze up when we got there.  It was not until the very nice six-year-old boy came to engage K and shake his hand that K felt comfortable enough to engage.  And then he engaged…and even when his efforts were rebuffed, he continued on and did not give up.  A good lesson to relearn, and made even more real by the fact that just as we were about to leave, the six year old boy returned and immediately jumped on K’s tire swing with him to play.  And when we did finally leave, this boy seemed sad that he was losing a play partner.  Well, I suppose we will be back so that K can keep working on making some new Swedish friends.

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2 thoughts on “A lesson in making friends from a three year old

  1. David–hey, I get where you are coming from. I have a tendancy to shut down when I am in a cross-cultural situation where we can’t communicate using language. When Patty is around, I rely on her to try to communicate. Well, that is unless I am by myself or have a real purpose for communicating. But, even then, I make quick assumptions about what they are saying rather than indicating that I don’t understand.

    It has been the case, in my experience, that as our kids have gotten older, they try to engage less and less. I have observed that same behavior in other kids, but have also seen kids who get older try to engage more and more.

    Calvin and Ty have done the same thing as K–start off by playing by themselves. I wonder if part of it is that they want to be engaged in some activity that is fun, but hope that someone will come by and engage them. Almost like they know that this space is not within their culture, so they are just going to exist within the space (I think many adults do the same thing) until someone from the culture decides to engage–then maybe it is ok to interact. Even when we were in the States, we had to talk to Calvin and teach him how to approach other kids–everything from what to say to what to and not do. Then, we had to talk to him about if the kids don’t want to play with him–that whole ego thing and failure thing–tough stuff.

    The other thing that plays a part here is touch. Most parents use touch as part of showing we love them. Kids rely upon it to feel secure. When they then try to reach out to others who are not parents, they have a need to touch–especially when language skills are not fully developed or when communication is difficult. I love the part about the handshake–that touch seemed to make things better. However, touch can go too far. We have also had to talk about the line between patting someone to get their attention and hitting them. For a while, Calvin would run by someone and smack them to get their attention–in his world, this was how he engaged and showed that he liked them–it didn’t work out well, and he was showing Ty a bad model. That took a long time to untrain and we still battle it daily. Perhaps that is why K had the stick.

    Anyway, I appreciate your story and your struggles!

    • Thank you for your comment Mick. I think the topic of touch is a very important one. For K, growing up in Myanmar touch played a much larger role in contact between adults to children and children to children. K was surrounded by random strangers, both adults and kids, who would come up to him to pinch or stroke him…it was simply the culture there. This is now part of K’s norms. But, coming to Sweden, a much for reserved and stand-off culture, touching is a big no-no; but it is how K first tries to engage and establish friendships. He insists on hugging, draping and arm over another’s shoulder, and holding hands with a friend almost at all times. He also gets quite aggressive with this, very similar to Calvin’s hitting and run by swats at the head. I find that these cultural differences with touch and personal space are added barriers to successful cross-cultural encounters for one so young who does not know how to distinguish what is culturally appropriate in one place versus another. We too spend a lot of time coaching K on how to interact; but he has had substantial success in Myanmar doing one thing, and it is a real challenge for him to put that away here in Sweden.

      Thanks for sharing Mick. I find it very helpful to hear about the experiences of others who have similar experiences.

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