Sometimes, a boy feels alone. He spends many a yard time alone, an isolated member of the school community.
Sometimes, he is alone because he is too nervous to try to interact, too overwhelmed with the rush and tumble of a wide open yard, too overwhelmed by shyness, frustration, and negative thoughts. He has tried before, but failed, or has thought of trying and then has given up because someone has decided to wind him up.
Sometimes, he tells himself that it’s better to be alone because it seems easier. It’s easier to avoid people, then you don’t have to deal with the nonsense, you don’t have worry about making a fool of yourself, saying the wrong thing or, worse yet, losing control and lashing out at someone, so better to wander alone.
Sometimes, however, he is alone because his peers, his classmates, the boys he played with when he was younger do not realise that they need to reach out to him still, even at the age of 11 or 12. They are absorbed in their games, their conversations, their friendships, unaware of the lonely boy, this member of their community. Some may occasionally wonder about him, contemplate a greeting, perhaps try to reach out, but, from their perspective, this boy does not seem interested, he seems to ignore them. Others are aware of him, but find him too odd, to strange, don’t know what they could have in common with him, don’t know how to interact with him.
Perhaps these boys used to play with him when they were younger, perhaps friendships had began to form but were stunted thanks to unresolved disagreements, obsessive play on the part of the boy, who had become so absorbed in his game that he forgot the people around him and the value of social interaction. Perhaps they drifted because people drift, or because he couldn’t adapt quickly enough to the noise and space of the bigger yard, and so got left behind, forgotten by his community.
Even when children are very young, at the junior end of the school, how we guide them through the complex, shifting, structures of friendship and social interaction makes a massive difference.
Do we say ‘Don’t play with __’, ‘hit back’, or do we say ‘Stand up for yourself but don’t hurt’?
Do we suggest they walk away, or do we suggest they try a different way, saying things like, ‘Ask for help if you cannot work it out,’ ‘Be careful/sensible when you play with __’.
If our children are not getting on with people in their group, do we give them excuses or do we help them to resolve conflict by saying ‘You might not always get on with __, but they’re a part of your group. You don’t have to play with them all the time, but they might be left out, or you might be left out.’ or ‘But try to remember they have feelings too, they have things they like to do, it’s good to take turns, to listen, to stop fussing and try to understand. Sometimes, if you want to understand, it’s important to stop asking questions and listen to their words, notice what they’re feeling and see if maybe you could do things differently for them, or maybe they need to listen to you’.
In order for any community to function well, for no member to be made to feel alone and for healthy relationships to blossom, all must play their part. In the raising and educating of children, families, schools and communities have a part to play. No matter how good a school is, no matter how committed they are to providing children with a holistic education that enables them to grow and learn and reach their potential, the family and their community have an important role to play. Like a the poles of a tripod, each one supports the other – if the balance is wrong, it collapses. When a school seeks to promote inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of others in an open, supportive, communal environment, what parents say and do makes a difference, for children’s attitudes are formed both by their families and their environment.
While we may be tempted to, it’s not always O.K. to simply say ‘They’re too young to understand’, ‘They can’t cope’. ‘They shouldn’t have to..’ , ‘They can’t help it’, ‘They just don’t get on’.
Certainly, there are times when all of these statements are true, but, equally, there are times when they are simply excuses, ways of making life easier, of falling into the trap of pitying rather than caring, of avoiding the hard work of taking a compassionate, attentive attitude to life. Learning to understand each other and respond appropriately to each others needs can help children appreciate that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, needs and wants. In order for our children to grow, for them to develop healthy relationships with each other, they need to learn to balance rights and responsibilities, to know what it means to take responsibility, to apologise and to graciously accept the apologies of others.
If we do not encourage this open, confident attitude, how will our children appreciate the value of compromise?
How will they learn that for healthier, balanced relationships to flourish, we sometimes need to hold back for the sake of others, to acknowledge their fears and frustrations as well as our own?
How can we help them realise that they can in fact ‘help it’, that they can ‘learn to get along’, that, no, it’s not simply a case of ‘not getting along’ or of ‘personality clashes’, that they can ‘cope’ with life’s complexities, particularly if they develop the right coping skills?
How can we help the child who feels alone if we do not support our children, teaching them to reach out to others and be accepting of difference, of oddities, of those who aren’t the best at reciprocating friendly banter?
More than likely, the school is working on these kinds of things with our children, but if we are not supporting this work at home, if we are saying things that contradict this way of doing things, we may be hindering a schools efforts at teaching children the art of dialogue, of developing their capacity to understand, tolerate and accept others. Schools cannot become truly welcoming communities if parents do not support the positive work they do. Ultimately, all any of us want is for our children to be accepted, for them to realise that ‘normal’ allows for difference, because to be ‘normal’ is to be a happy, open, content human being who rarely rather than sometimes feels alone in the schoolyard.