My niece Sofie calls me up from Wisconsin when she
needs to talk. We follow a tradition known in
Holland as "the Dutch uncle". A Dutch uncle is
someone a child can talk to confidentially, without
the child's parents finding out what they talked
about. This tradition acknowledges that parents can
sometimes be a little too invested in their
children's world to be the best listeners. A Dutch
uncle offers kids an alternative person with whom
to try to sort out their troubles. I'm always
flattered when she calls, and glad to be of service
to a ten year old in need. The problem this time is
with friends. It seems that Sofie has hit the age
where politics begin to play heavily in friendship.
No longer are friends just the people she likes to
play with. Such innocence has passed. Now friends
define her status, what clique she belongs to, and
whether anyone will sit with her at lunch time.
This week, her best friend, Carla, dumped her. "I
never was your friend!" were Carla's cruel parting
words. It wasn't hard to empathize. We've all been
there at least once, haven't we? Sofie and I talked
about how the rejection probably said more about
what Carla is struggling with than it says about
Sofie's worth as a friend. That helped, but it
couldn't remove all the hurt.
When I finished talking to Sofie I started to
sort the mail. I found a letter there from Zeke, an
old high school friend who was organizing our
twenty-fifth class reunion. I cringed at the sight
of his name, for Zeke had been my best friend,
until I dumped him. We were in tenth grade. Zeke
and I had hung out all year. Neither of us had fit
into any cliques, but at least we had each other.
That spring, however, the guys on the soccer team
started deciding that maybe I was cool enough to
join them. Their group went to the donut store
every day after school. Zeke and I had watched many
times as they all laughed and piled into some
senior's car, then sped out of the parking lot. I
imagined that if I could be part of that group I
would finally be considered "cool". Who knows,
maybe then I could even get a girlfriend!
One magic day they invited me along. I called to
Zeke to join us, but he knew he wasn't wanted by
the others. And when they didn't like someone, they
always let you know. I stood on the curb waiting to
get in the car. Zeke stood at the school's front
door. His eyes reached out to me, pleading"I
thought you were my friend."
I looked back, trying to convey my feeling that
this was all happening too fast. But all I could
get my eyes to say was, "I'm sorry."
Then Zeke's expression hardened and he turned
his head as if to say, "Screw you".
I got in the car. I never talked to Zeke or
anyone else about it.
Now, twenty-seven years later, I still feel like
If I had a chance to do it over, I now know what
I would say to Zeke, and what I would say to my new
friends. I would be able to describe how hard it
was for me to be standing in the middle, having to
decide. But at the time I had no words for these
So I love getting the chance to help kids think
about their friendships. They need adults to help
them articulate their feelings about the
interpersonal dynamics they encounter. We may help
them every evening with their homework, but too
often we leave them to manage their friendships
Sometimes it helps to watch your child as they
play with their friends. That way you can notice
teach child's different personality. Later, you can
ask your child to talk about what she likes and
doesn't like about the important peers in her life.
This type of conversation can help a child
articulate their needs and feelings. Then they can
communicate better with their friends.
Without such help they may do things they will
still regret twenty-seven years later.
© 2008, Tim
Other Father Issues,
* * *
Your children need your presence more than your
presents. - Jesse Jackson
Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family
Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He
specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples
Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached
at 831.464.2922 or through his website:
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