Monday, September 20, 2010

The Invisible Friends

“I played with two girls today at school.” Diva told me this with an air of casual confidence as we walked down the street to her dance class. I asked the girls’ names and my daughter shrugged; she’s terrible at names, and offered instead only this vague description. “One of them is the girl I played with yesterday.” With it being her first week of Kindergarten, I was just so glad she was already making friends, even nameless ones.

Except that she was lying.

Just days before, when we’d taken her up the hill for her first day of school, all three of us were thrilled and anxious. When the classes lined up on the playground, she didn’t complain that all of her buddies from preschool had been assigned to the same other class instead of hers. And when her teacher announced it was time to head inside, Diva seemed ready. Parents could walk with the children all the way to the school doors or just let the kids go ahead, and when I asked my daughter what she wanted, she was clear: “I’m good—you can go.”

Every day after school, when Daddy and I casually asked how school was, we’d go right to questions like “have you made a friend yet” or “did you play with anybody new?” On the first two days, she said, yes, that there was a girl whose name she didn’t know; on the third day, the two of them were joined by another girl whose name was also a mystery. As friends and family asked how Diva liked kindergarten, I trotted out the nameless playmates as examples of how smoothly it was going.

Apparently, I just fell off the turnip truck. Based on my complete overconfidence about the transition, you’d never guess I have been a parent for five years already, someone who should know better that big moves—say, going to a new school, six hours a day, five days a week with 20 complete strangers—might be exhausting and unsettling. But, no, I wanted to hear that she was happy and surrounded by friends, even “Miss Fill in the Blank” or “Little Somethingorother.”

The truth came out on the fourth night when Daddy asked how her two new friends were. She was matter of fact. “Oh, I made them up.” He was dumbfounded. Hadn’t she been telling Papa about these imaginary girls for days? She agreed that this was true.   

Go ahead, put on your parent hat and decide which issue needed to be addressed first. That she had no friends at school? That she felt compelled to tell us that she did, so we would be happy even if she wasn’t? Or that she was so comfortable just lying outright to her dads?

It is possible, of course, that she had made friends after all. But if so, then she was lying about lying, which is very meta and would make an excellent conceit for a novel, but still meant that we wouldn’t know which stories to trust about her life at school. So Daddy settled on starting with the truth issue.

He reminded her that telling an untrue story is lying and that we aren’t supposed to lie to each other. He assured her that we want her to be able to express how she really feels, and that her Daddy and Papa are the two people she should trust the most. She tried to reposition things a bit, saying that she had only been “joking” about having friends. Later, when I tried to remind her that she really does know the difference between a joke and a lie, she remained adamant: it wasn’t a lie if she didn’t mean it to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to flash ahead to when she is 16. Just imagine the apocalyptic wreckage of her fathers’ nervous systems as she employs that logic in other settings. (“College is going just fine, Papa, and the sounds you hear in the background are not a huge biker rally in South Dakota that I dropped out of school to attend.”)

To be fair, she was actually showing a sad kind of maturity here: she had already learned that grown-ups ask many questions with a set answer in mind, so intuiting the desired answer allowed her to perform well in conversation. If her dads asked every single day if she had made friends, then not yet having made any must not only be scary to her but be bad and disappointing to us, so she gave the response that would please 2 out of 3 people in our family. She might not have been answering in the best way by offering up a lie, but we hadn’t exactly been asking the best questions either.

Over the weekend, I noticed how much the pattern repeated in her interactions with adults. On Sunday alone, three separate grown-ups asked Lily if she liked (or in one case loved) Kindergarten. She said yes all three times, and added nothing else, while the grown-ups filled in the blanks, exclaiming about how excited she must be and what a big girl she was. I could see the stillness on my daughter’s face, her lack of enthusiasm masked by her absolute awareness that only one answer would do.

I tell my college students that research never begins with a question that can be answered “yes” or “no,” because you always end up squeezing your results to fit. True learning comes from an open-ended question, with the information you find shaping an outcome that may well be complicated and not easy to boil down. This is going to have to be my task as a parent as well, remembering to ask the open question, instead of shoehorning the data into the desired result. Instead of starting with “Did you play with someone today?” I need to try the less-leading, “Tell me about recess.” If her answer involves a specific classmate, perhaps even one with a name, excellent; but if she focuses instead on her monkey bars progress, then I guess we’ll talk about monkey bars.

Last night, at bedtime, I told Diva that she can feel any way she likes about Kindergarten. If, when questioned by a grown-up, she wants to say she enjoys school, great. But if she doesn’t like it very much that day, she should say that, too. And so she said something I knew she meant, at least for this moment: “Kindergarten is boring. Except recess. That’s the best.

Ok, so that may not be the happiest sentiment she’s ever expressed, but it contains the one thing I do want to hear: the truth.

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