There’s a new kid in my son’s class. His name’s Owen, and he’s 3, which means he’ll fit in fine because everyone else is also 3. At that age you don’t pick your friends based on shared interests or goals. Everyone’s interests are the same: Goldfish crackers. Goals are the same: Eat more Goldfish.
The only thing is, Owen’s really, really shy. Painfully shy. Shy to the point of always trying to fold into his own body so as to expose less surface area to our shared space. So all the other kids have been lectured to be extra nice to him, and all the parents at drop-off stand around like overgrown idiots, smiling too hard and waving at him like we think we’re generating wind power for the school.
Owen sees right through us. He hasn’t said with words from his mouth that he hates us, but he has very communicative eyes, and basically, he definitely hates us.
Look, Owen. I get it. I was the new kid once. And I remember the advice my big sister gave me that day, which was not to buddy up with the first person to be nice to me because they were probably too eager and uncool and I should hold out for somebody better. Bad advice, it turns out. I’m eager and uncool. Those two qualities are at the core of me. I should be so lucky that someone exactly like me should present herself to me in the opening minutes of my first day as new kid.
I can’t play it cool like you, Owen. At my first party in college (in college everyone’s new, but you’re self-obsessed and feel like it’s just you), I met a guy who talked to me for a while and seemed OK, so I looked up his dorm phone number and called him the next day. On the voicemail I gave him the wrong name then corrected myself to underscore the fact that I’d done that.
You see what I’m saying, Owen? We’ve all been there.
I’m sorry to say that we don’t ever grow out of it. We big kids are always sizing up the new guy, be it new co-worker, new neighbor, new president. It’s only instinct. We’re all animals at our core. My grandfather lived to be 93, and the gossip at his nursing home ran hotter than a hive of bees. A new animal enters our environment, and we have to decide if it’s friend or enemy. (You can take your time making up your mind, but when someone shows you who they are, believe them.)
Before Owen, my son was the new kid, and I’m happy for him, getting to don a veteran’s confidence. Now he gets to be one of the kids to show Owen around, how to wash his hands, which blocks stack the best, which dinosaurs are off-limits because Charlotte called dibs on them and nobody messes with Charlotte.
Privately, selfishly, though, I’m a little bit nervous. What if, in a month, Owen has more friends than my son? What if Owen’s mom has more friends than I do? What if I see her outside of school, hanging out with the other parents without me? We’re second-newest! We should have the second-least friends.
Owen’s mom should be like me! Like I was, I should say: grateful and with one foot always hovering over a marsh of despair. I was so happy when we had our first playdate with one of the kids from my son’s school. I actually stuttered when one of the other moms invited us to join her son’s soccer team. But on their first day, when I showed Owen’s mom the trick with the school door handle, she didn’t look so impressed, or throw her arms around me, or weave me a friendship bracelet right there on the spot. Different strokes, I guess.
It’s not that I’m worried my kid, as we swim out past Goldfish years, won’t make friends. It’s just that I feel like his making them is based on the things I do on his behalf. This is so obviously the wrong way to handle things, but I can’t help it. For Valentine’s Day, the teachers sent home a strict note about only sending cards for the school party and no candy. I told my son we had to stick to the rules, and everybody else sent candy anyway. One of the teachers gave out candy. I’m fine with some candy. It’s just that my pictures of dogs wearing heart-shaped glasses can only stand up to so much.
Food is a great way to break the ice as the new kid. If you want someone to like you, slip them some calories. For a long time I tried to get by on jokes and my sparkling personality—allow me to again recommend food.
As luck would have it, my son started preschool just before Halloween, and we were throwing a big party. Naturally, we invited everyone in his room. There were Twix bars for the kids, wine and miniquiches for the parents. We had this in the bag.
Well, it worked, and it didn’t. A lot of the kids came, but some didn’t. And some parents—it may shock you to learn this—don’t like more sugar being chucked at their kids the day before they go trick-or-treating. But the kids who did show up still talk about that party, and I earned a place in their hearts that day as Lady with Chocolate.
The food trick! Old as time. Everyone knows it, which is why I was so thrilled when, on my first day at my first-ever full-time job, the administrative assistant asked me if I had plans for lunch. I did! I squealed at her, if email could squeal. My direct supervisor had offered to take me out, but I didn’t think she’d mind if we all went together, so wouldn’t she please come along?
She would not, she wrote back. Rather, she was interested to know the time of my lunch plans since she would have to plan hers around mine. Someone had to answer the phone, and the two of us shared phone duties. Had I not been told that?
Eventually, you know, someone did approach me in Manassas’ Osbourn High marching band. The someone my sister had advised me to shun. (Did I not mention it was high-school marching band? Who did she think I was holding out for, J.Lo?) Do you want to know where that girl is now? Shooting documentaries in Japan. She has a dog with blue eyes and only appears on social media wearing outfits from Star Wars. She’s about a metric ton cooler than any of the rest of us band geeks, even if nobody in our high school appreciated it at the time. Except her. A part of her probably did, which is what gave her the confidence to reach out to the new kid. Go Eagles.
We’re here for you, Owen, when you want to come out of your twisted-pretzel pose and play cars for a while or have a snack. I’ve heard excellent things about the Goldfish they serve here.