Why is it so hard to make new friends? Why is it that many of our close friends are ones that we made when we were younger? High school friends, college friends, even pre-school friends can stick with us for decades, often after years of separation. One phone call and there you are, back in sync like no time has passed. And yet reaching out to new people can sometimes seem terrifying, or at the very least exhausting.
When I lived with my wife in an apartment in Silver Spring, MD, we didn’t know any of our neighbors. We didn’t have children yet, so we had plenty of time for going out and having fun, but the friends we had were co-workers, singing friends, or friends we made in college. Meeting new people was something that just sort of happened when required. Then we moved to Baltimore, and actually met a few of our neighbors. The ones within a one or two house radius. We also had a baby, which encouraged people to talk to us. But still, the people that we interacted with were co-workers and friends that we had known for a while.
When we left the mid-atlantic and headed back home to Vermont we had two children, and settling in to our new location provided us with the opportunity to make some new friends. We actually know many of our neighbors now. We have hung out with them, like, for realsies. We know some parents from school. We are making new friends. But it occurs to me that the people we are making friends with are the people who also have children. Of course this makes sense, because we have something in common to talk about, right? Except, wrong. I’m sure I have plenty in common with all of the childless people, or the people whose children are grown and moved out, and yet I don’t often sit and hang out with those people, or get to know them at all.
The reason that I have gotten to know the other parents that live nearby is that my kids have gotten to know their kids. And upon further reflection, this makes sense to us in a way that we totally disconnect from ourselves. What is the first thing we tell our kids about going to a new place to make them more comfortable? “Don’t worry, there will be other kids there.” And when we see a kid playing, we tell our kids, “Look, another kid. Why don’t you go say hi to them? They look like they are around your age.” And we all know that “around your age” means plus or minus 50% of the age of your child.
But we adults do not follow this rule. This very basic thing that seems so obvious to kids, and that seems obvious to us when we deal with our kids, somehow does not apply to ourselves. I would never tell me wife, “Don’t worry about that big conference you are going to. I’m sure there will be tons of other adults there.” If I was at a party, I would not think of saying to my wife, “Look, there’s a woman over there who is about your age. Why don’t you go hang out with her?” You can’t just go up to some grown up and ask, “Do you want to play?” Or can you…?
It’s the same thing with dogs. People go to dog parks and their dog starts playing with some other dog, which allows them to start a conversation with that person. Some people form great friendships from repeated meetings like these. Just think how their lives would have been radically changed if their dog had decided to sniff some other dog’s butt that day. Isn’t it weird to let your pet choose your friends for you? And yet, essentially, that’s what people do!
I am trying to think of a parent that I am currently friends with, where the relationship did not start because our children spoke to each other first. I can maybe think of one. Maybe. I can’t really remember who spoke to who first. But the point is, I let my children go out there and make friends, but I don’t do the same thing myself. And yet even the realization of this fact doesn’t necessarily change anything.
I mean, we have social protocols, right? There is a reason that I don’t just go up to everyone I meet and try to hang out with them, and it’s not because I am shy. Or maybe it is. Maybe I am afraid of rejection. Maybe I am afraid that they won’t like me. Maybe I am afraid that I won’t like them. Maybe I make unfair assessments and judgements about people before I even speak to them. Maybe all of the above. But when I see my kids playing, welcoming new kids into their games, and having a great time with total strangers whose names they don’t know and who they may never see again, it makes me think that maybe they are doing something right. Because they’re doing what I wish I could be doing, and they don’t need pets or babies or any other crutches to do it.