What If They Can’t?

Every year, it happens.  Shortly before the start of the new school year, posts start flying around the blogosphere about encouraging your kid to be kind to others.  To befriend the friendless.  To be the shining beacon of light in their classroom.

To teach them that their character matters far more than their achievement.

This year was no different.

I’ve read those articles for years, well before my son ever set foot in his first classroom.  And I truly believe that we are raising a kind, empathetic, sweet little boy.  But I’m also coming to accept that, despite our best efforts, he will not be the one that saunters confidently across the room to invite the sad, lonely child to sit next to him at lunch.

At least not today.

So have I failed?  Isn’t it every mother’s dream that their child be the friendly hero and savior touted in those articles?  But now, I’m wondering.  What if they can’t?

Though happy-go-lucky and enthusiastic, Conlan has always been slow to warm to new situations.  Then last year, I got my first real chance to help him practice what I’ve been preaching about being friendly to other kids.  Mid-year, a new little girl joined his preschool class.  To say she was upset about this was an understatement.  From what Conlan told me, she cried all day long.

“Did you talk to her?

No.”

“Tomorrow you should tell her how fun preschool is.  Ask her to play with you so she doesn’t feel scared and lonely.  Be her friend.”

The next day we reviewed his assignment on the way to school.  I saw her weeping as I walked into the classroom.  I saw Conlan move in her direction, and then shy away.

“Did you talk to the new girl?”

“No.”

I was disappointed.  Wasn’t raising the friend to the friendless the hallmark of successful parenting?  I can get on board with the whole character over achievement movement, and I’d been doing my best, but my boy wasn’t cooperating.  What was I doing wrong?  He was letting those poor, sad, friendless children just suffer in their loneliness.

The next day, we tried again.

“Did you talk to the new girl?”

“I tried mom, but she just cried.”

I knew it had taken every ounce of courage to overcome his shyness and reach out, but I still felt like a failure as a parent.  Why wasn’t my little boy running around helping all the unhappy and marginalized children feel safe and loved and happy just like all the other mommies in all the other blogs were teaching their children to do?

Worse yet, I started to realize that my son was feeling stressed and ashamed that he couldn’t do what I was expecting.  He knew what I expected of him, but he physically couldn’t do it.

Fast forward to kindergarten.  We continued to talk about kindness, sticking up for other kids, and making friends with children who may be lonely.  Just like the blogs said.  Off he went.

And you know whose child was lonely and had no friends?

Mine.

Where did we go wrong?  We started to coach him every evening on how to ask kids to play, and with every day’s report learned that he just sat on the bench during recess, played basketball by himself, or wandered around aimlessly.

I started to understand.  Big groups aren’t his thing.

Now, a month into the school year, he’s finally started connecting.  We continue to praise his kindness and encourage his character.  And I’ve started to realize that his quiet, one-on-one personality is just as valuable as the self-assured, outgoing child that everyone seems to be trying to cultivate.

I’ve learned that he’s not lacking in courage or character, but rather that he has been gifted to display kindness in other ways.  As I’ve always known, he was created perfectly.

We will continue to teach him kindness and friendliness.  And we’ll have high expectations, but we’ll understand that the way he lives them out might not always look the way we expect them too.  I need to remember that it’s character over performance.  And the performance doesn’t look the same for everyone.

Yesterday, he came home with a note.  A note from the teacher.  A classmate had spilled his snack and he quietly jumped in to help out his friend.

I guess I’m not failing after all.

And neither are you, dear mama, if you’ve read the same blogs I have and then found yourself disappointed when your child didn’t swoop in as the superhero like you were hoping.  It doesn’t show a lack of character at all.

Just look for the character in other ways.

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