March 9, 2010

Dancing and Friendship

carter waltz 

George’s father brought him to me because he was worried. He remembered middle school, and the close friends he made and kept through most of high school. Though both he and his friends moved on and in different directions, he knew how essential they were as catalysts for him to become independent of his parents.

George, 13, didn’t have a best friend. He didn’t have a group of friends that his father knew about. He was smart, courteous, respectful of people and things. He usually had a book with him. His father was also concerned that George might inevitably become known as a nerd.

I admit that I have not seen genetic research investigating whether nerdiness can be inherited. I predict that at some point, there will be a nature vs. nurture debate about it among academic intelligentsia. Among nerds. The issue of nerdism is not the topic of this post, but I would politely point out that George’s father just happened to be the only computer engineer in his working class family.

George’s father was also concerned that his child might have an autistic-spectrum disorder, and wanted a professional opinion.

When I spoke to George, I asked questions I usually ask of teenagers. I asked about depression, suicidality, substance use. There were no surprises in the answers to my usual screening questions. He was a happy, thoughtful kid without any worrisome activities. He agreed that he really didn’t have any friends. The claimed this didn’t bother him. He didn’t say that people didn’t like him, he didn’t complain about having no one to play with. He said he was content the way things were.

How do you get your 2-year old to taste new foods, when she doesn’t want anything that isn’t the right shade of white even on her plate? As far as she is concerned, there isn’t a problem growing to retirement age on milk, macaroni and cheese (made one very specific way only), plain white rice, and cookies. Some years ago, I read a research study that asked how many times you have to put a new food in front of a 2-year-old before she will spontaneously try it. On average, 30. That’s just an average, of course. Some were more adventurous and some took a lot longer than 30 times. One single, lonely, french-cut string bean every night. Seven nights a week for a month. And then she takes a reluctant nibble. And then she says she doesn’t like it.

Be the parent. You know what your child does not know. Maybe George is satisfied with his friendships as they are. Maybe he’s not depressed about it, lonely, isolated. Maybe he’s not suffering from a personality disorder or autistic-spectrum disorder. Maybe he just doesn’t know how helpful and rewarding a good friendship can be. He doesn’t know that it can be crucial to have somebody who completely agrees that the history teacher mumbles and that parents can be unbearably unreasonable. He doesn’t know that eventually his classmates will notice that he carries a book around.

Social skills are an old-fashioned dance. A few of our children need no coaching. They will ask somebody to dance and get out there in front of everyone making a perfect fool of themselves. The rest of us look on critically about the way they look or move, and secretly envious that they are willing to do it. We feel helpless and alone. We want this skill, but feel humiliated to admit we lack it. We don’t even know where to go to learn it. We do not believe it can be learned, and feel like it is a deep personality flaw. Because we believe it can’t be learned, any attempt appears to us as doomed to failure. So we don’t try. We hang out with a group of our pals and make fun of the kids actually having fun.

You now know that this isn’t a flawless oracle predicting our futures. After all, somewhere along the way you became a parent. Professionally speaking, that usually requires help. (Though we have the technology….)

I told George’s dad that I thought he was on a spectrum, but it wasn’t the Autistic Spectrum. Some people, especially starting around middle school, are particularly self-conscious about the possibility of social failure and rejection. We might not be able to teach them to love to dance. We can, however, teach them some dance steps. We can also be there to catch them when they fall.

I made some specific suggestions. If George wasn’t into sports—he wasn’t—he should sign up for an after-school program. He should be given a list of choices. In this local area, there are many choices that aren’t too costly. In his case, there were library programs and science and computer classes. There were also programs in which students like George can tutor other students in certain subjects. This can be really helpful for good students who get their homework done before they get home, and spend the rest of the day and evening playing video games or on the computer. In some schools, there’s still a chess club or a debate team. I suggested finding a program requiring some cooperative activity, where participants have to work together to make something or learn something. The group is the way to find others of about the same age with a common interest.

The next suggestion was to host one or several group gatherings. Don’t miss this opportunity to show those kids where George lives, the stuff he has in his room, the video games he plays. Remember, they are all nervously making fun of the popular kids on the dance floor. They don’t have enough perspective to realize that none of them know how to dance. Be the parent. As everyone shows up, keep a little log book of names, addresses and phone numbers—George won’t think of this. Don’t supervise, disappear into the background. But only after the pizza arrives.

The photograph is from my collection and is by Keith Carter.  It's called Waltz.

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