*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I experienced firsthand; used with permission.
“Go over to that stranger’s house, see if they have any kids, and if they do, see if they’ll let you inside for lunch.”
This isn’t something my mom actually said to me when I was twelve, back in 1994, but it may as well have been because it’s essentially how I made new friends in the neighborhood when I was a kid.
I was lucky enough to live at the tail end of the time when it was totally okay to let your kids roam around the world by themselves, and the inability to let my own child have that freedom is damn near heartbreaking.
I used to go outside in the morning stuffed full with breakfast and slathered with sunscreen and not come back until the sun started to dip in the sky, starving and exhausted from the day out on my bike, or hiking in the woods, or exploring the creepy bones of houses that were going up in new developments all around our neighborhood.
There weren’t many of us — me and one other girl, and three boys who played together — and looking back it felt a lot like the group of kids from It, a representative of all kinds of kid who would come together once off the bus or during the months of summer, but scatter and deny knowing each other in school.
When we saw a new family move into one of the new houses, of course we would gather at the doorstep to knock, peer around the bodies of maybe-parents and look for someone else to play with.
Now, if I sent my child to do the same thing I might get arrested, I don’t know, and we don’t want to find out.
I don’t have a typical child, and she hasn’t had a typical childhood.
My daughter has never had a real friend even once in her whole life — in my negative opinion it’s because other children can never get past differences and make friends with kids they think are weird — but regardless, she’s slipped into the world behind the screen of the iPod or iPad like so many other autistic children do, because that’s where they find their comfort in spending time with people who won’t judge or be mean to them.
My daughter’s best friends are YouTube stars, and it makes me feel like the world is broken.
My childhood summer friends, like I said before, never would have spoken to each other in school.
The boys I talked to and played with every day were some of the most popular in their grade, and they would never lower themselves to talk to me in public when they were in sixth grade, but when we were on our home turf, they were like brothers. We had our own world. We all put our aggressions and prejudices away and just played.
That’s not something I see happening in the world anymore.
I see children falling into tighter and tighter cliques that seem partly facilitated by the mothers of these children who will ferry their kids to parties and playdates in their Land Rovers and Escalades while I wonder whether my child’s invitations got lost in the mail.
But no. Parents don’t even make an effort anymore. The most my daughter ever gets is usually one play date and then we are ghosted or shooed off with excuses until I get the point that your child didn’t like my child.
So she sits at home with her iPad and tells me what’s up with Brataley and the Seven Super Girls, and so many other names that fly in and out of my head like the videos fly by her eyes and I think, no, it should be the sight of green leaves on trees flying by while you laugh with your friends as your race bikes down empty roads.
Meanwhile, I search the internet for the next activity to sign her up for, the next thing to do with other kids because it’s so important for her to socialize with other them, even though it’s so fucking hard, even though sometimes it hurts us both so much to get a closer look at what she’s missing out on.
Parents, can you do me a favor?
If you have a child in elementary or middle school, can you ask them about their peers in special ed?
Can you ask whether maybe they could invite them to lunch sometime, or pick them first (or even third) in a kickball game?
Can you ask them to be the bravest one in class and stand up to the bullies for the kids that can’t fend for themselves?
And if that’s too much, can you just remind your child that there are kids out there that don’t have any friends, and that even a smile in their direction would brighten their day?
My daughter’s childhood has been so lonely.
It would be nice if she could put her iPad friends down after getting a knock at the door.