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.