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Friendships. Jump in or stand back?

My kids are 4 and 5, just the age where they are really starting to navigate friendships on their own.  Despite their limitations (Lucy’s hearing loss and Isaac’s difficulty with social cues), they do very well, and most of the time I’m able to sit back and watch, awed at their ability to connect so quickly with people.

Last weekend my family and I went to a festival. It was a stunning day, and partway through the afternoon my wife and I found ourselves stretched out on the grass watching our kids and our 4-year-old niece, Maeve, roll down the steep grassy hill. Other children followed suit, and suddenly children who had just met each other were grass-stained and shouting with laughter, holding hands to pull each other back up the hill. Heaven.

Then I heard Lucy wailing and turned to see a little boy pulling Maeve away from her by the hand. Maeve explained, “Nate couldn’t understand what she was saying so he said we shouldn’t play with her anymore.”

There it was. He couldn’t understand what she was saying because her first language is American Sign Language and his is English. It’s no mystery why they had trouble communicating, and I don’t have any reason to think Nate was trying to be mean, but my heart hurt all the same.

He couldn’t understand her, so he walked away from her.

This is where I go right off a cliff. I start thinking about the rest of her life, about how many people won’t bother to get to know this smart, creative, funny kid because they can’t understand her right away. About what a loss that will be for them and for her.

There will always be kids who behave like Nate – deliberately or unintentionally. I would have loved to give him an earful, but he’s not my kid.

I wanted Maeve to stand up for her cousin.  I wanted Isaac to stand up for his sister. And I wanted Lucy to stand up for herself.

With every spat among children – special needs or not – I always ask myself what’s more important: intervening in the moment to help them learn the right thing to do, or letting things go so they can learn to do it for themselves? I try to choose carefully, and intervene only in the arguments that feel like they’re about character rather than incidentals.

As much as I wanted Lucy to stand up for herself, that didn’t feel like the moment to ask that of her. It felt like the moment when I wanted her to see that I was on her side, and that her brother and cousin were on her side. So, in front of her, and in front of Nate (yes, that was satisfying), I pointed out to Isaac and Maeve that Lucy’s feelings were hurt by what happened. I asked them to give her a hug, to ask if she was okay, to make sure she didn’t get left out again. I told them this was their job, since sometimes it was hard for kids who didn’t sign to understand Lucy, and Lucy needed her family to help bridge that gap.

They got it, and they did it. Lucy got up and went back to playing. The kids were all fine and the whole thing was over in 5 minutes.

I prioritized my kids standing up for each other over standing up for themselves in how I handled this situation. Did I make the right choice this time? I hope so.  Will I make the right choice about this next time? I have no idea.

I feel particularly under the gun about this because both of my kids have special needs and I don’t want how they feel about themselves to be shaped by other people’s unkindness or lack of understanding (literally, in this case). None of us will know if we made the right choices until our children are adults – at best.

How do you manage these situations? What’s the most important thing you want your children to learn from how you handle these situations?

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