On two different occasions, when Aaron came home from MDA summer camp and asked what was new, I’ve blurted out the news that we were moving. Now, years later, it’s a joke, but back then Aaron swore he would never go to camp again.
Moving meant ripping Aaron and his older sister Kate away from their friends and everything they knew and loved. Aaron, who has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) and uses a power wheelchair, had to work especially hard to be accepted. I’d watched children whisper and stare when he entered a room, and my heart ached seeing his loneliness and alienation. But sometimes moving just has to be done. In fact, sometimes it’s for the benefit of your child that you’re moving — better schools or better medical services. So you just “suck it up” and do what you can to get through it.
Over the course of several moves, I’ve come to believe that parents can greatly facilitate a successful transition to new friends and a feeling of connectedness.
When we made our first move, Aaron was just entering school. He missed Chris, his best friend from preschool, and I remember hearing him cry at night. I’d crawl into bed with him and we’d talk about writing Chris a letter in the morning about all the fun things we’d done in our new neighborhood. I’d suggest Aaron draw him a picture, perhaps of the new park, then add, “Let’s go to the park tomorrow and see if there are any other children to play with.” He’d become hopeful about our plans for the next day and stop crying. Then I’d go back to bed, where I’d silently cry myself to sleep.
What a difficult year! That first summer before school started was the most trying because we had no idea where children lived and played. I drove around the neighborhood looking for children. We went to parks, the library and the community swimming pool, sticking close to the new school in hopes the children we met were enrolled there.
That summer, Aaron learned a lot about how to meet and play with other children. I usually “prompted” him with ideas about what to say or do, then would back off and try to appear like I wasn’t looking. If he came to talk to me, or I sensed that he was having trouble approaching a child, I’d give him another prompt.
Our routine went something like this: “There’s a little boy over there. Why don’t you go climb on the bridge with him?” Aaron would go play on the bridge, and maybe they’d talk, or maybe not. If Aaron came back to me, I was ready with more suggestions. “See if he wants to play with one of your trucks.” “Tell him about our dog, and see if he has one.” When we got ready to leave, I had Aaron ask the boy if he wanted to come back tomorrow to play again.
This routine taught Aaron how to approach kids when I wasn’t around. Once the school year started, I encouraged his friendship attempts from home. The first couple of days it was, “Did you talk to any kids today?” or “Did you play with anybody at recess today?” I had him tell me about the other children to get him thinking about which ones might be fun to get to know. After several days he told me of a boy he’d like to play with. We talked about how he could talk to the boy, perhaps by sitting next to him in reading group or at lunch.
It was a very slow, daily process with me deliberately planning with Aaron what to do next. Our goals progressed from saying something to the child, to showing the child something Aaron brought from home, to hanging around him and talking to him at recess, to finding out what he liked to play, to asking him if he wanted to come to our house to play sometime, to asking him to write down his phone number, and so on.
Sheri Overton is a retired university professor who studies how children make friends. Diagnosed with FSHD at the age of 16, she now lives in Austin, Texas. She is pictured above in an earlier family portrait when her kids were teenagers. Aaron, now 27, is an artist and avid gamer living in Silver Spring, Md. Kate, now 30, is finishing a graduate degree in counseling and lives with her husband in the Baltimore area.
Sometimes Aaron had setbacks when a child rejected his attempt to play or called him names. I silently wanted to strangle the little monster, but taught Aaron to make a joke rather than get mad. We talked about children being surprised or afraid of new things, and that often was why they stared. We discussed how Aaron could show them how his wheelchair worked or explain that even though he couldn’t run, he could kick the ball with his foot. Our strategy was to stay friendly on the outside, but on the inside, recognize that some kids act mean and those aren’t the ones you want to play with.
In a way, I was teaching Aaron courage and risk-taking. I expressed enthusiasm and confidence, and tried to be supportive or offer an alternative rather than being disappointed or critical when he didn’t do what we discussed. I was confident that if we could just get children over to play at our house, we could set the conditions so they’d have fun and want to play together again. Then as relationships developed, I could back off.
Aaron did eventually make friends, as did Kate. It just took him longer. And then, while he was away at MDA summer camp, I got another job and we had to move again, halfway across the country.
This time, I really prepared for the move to make it less painful for the kids. The whole family went on the pre-move trip to find a house. Before we left, I found some children for them to meet while they were there. I called around shamelessly to find same-sex children who would be in the same schools and grades as my children.
The principal of Kate’s new middle school had moved to town a couple of years earlier and knew what I was going through. He asked a little about Kate, and said he knew two girls who also were in band and who were friendly and accepting. One of the girls had a brother Aaron’s age. I called the girls’ parents, explained that we were moving into the school area, and said that I wanted to find “pen pals” so my kids would know someone before they moved.
I helped Aaron and Kate compose letters that talked about some of the things they liked to do and that we were coming for a visit. The children’s parents were really nice people who encouraged their kids to write back before we left on our trip. When we got to town, we arranged for the children to meet and go for ice cream.
By the time we actually moved, my kids were at least viewing this new town as a friendly place. Of course, neither of them wanted to move, but instead of dwelling on that, they talked about what life would be like in our new town.
When we actually moved, the little boy across the street came to check us out as we unloaded the truck. I offered him a soft drink and Aaron talked to him some, so he stayed awhile. Aaron set up his Nintendo that night, and the next morning hung around outside until he saw the boy and yelled for him to come over and play Nintendo. This boy didn’t have a video game, and was delighted to have one move into the neighborhood. He started coming over daily and bringing his friends. Meanwhile, Kate called the girls that we met on our first trip and they got together, becoming good friends.
Eventually, Aaron also made good friends. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. There is no end to this story, because kids always have to make new friends for one reason or another — they change classes or schools, old friends drift apart or move away, or they start activities that bring them into contact with a whole new set of children. I’ve drawn on these ideas time and time again since these two moves, and have found that, with planning, parents can assist their children with the challenge of making new friends.