One of the first big promises I made each of my kids on their first day of kindergarten was that they were about to make so many new friends.
I hoped it would ease the tension around walking alone into the big, wide world, but it was also an acknowledgment of the truth: 5-year-olds are hardwired for friendship. With hardly any sense of self-preservation, very few prejudices and abundant curiosity, friendships blossom in seconds. All it takes is a shared passion for cheese crackers or the color green to build a foundation for the whole school year.
But kindergartners grow up. Friends move away or grow apart. Schools conspire to separate best buds into different classes on different schedules, and it becomes not unlikely for growing kids to find themselves on the outskirts of established peer groups that seem content to exclude, whether in innocence or on purpose. Our older kids are left with the somewhat scarier task of friend-finding. Now with a passel of preconceived stereotypes, fresh embarrassments and a powerful teenaged desire to fit in.
What I want to tell my middle school kids is that they’re still about to make so many new friends. From now on, right through college and probably beyond, they’re going to continue making friends. It’ll be a lifelong experience. But here in the midst of new social graces and fledgling selves, friend-making can be particularly intimidating.
Here’s what I’m telling my older kids this school year, most of which I hope will be more tangible than the true but tired “just be yourself.”
Do things you lovein places you enjoy
That’s where you’ll find your people. One reason middle school is so amazing is that there are plenty of opportunities to join clubs and teams, which are often packed with like-minded individuals. Join the clubs. Try the teams.
Friendships can naturally evolve with frequent proximity, because that’s how we humans tend to work. Despite Mark Twain’s famous idiom to the contrary, I’m of the persuasion that familiarity breeds closeness. Add some shared interests, and familiarity also breeds real friendship.
Casual friendships now leadto deep connections later
Some friendships are off like a rocket right away, but those are no stronger or better than the friendships that got a slow start. Even the small daily connections that seem to be mostly casual are building a foundation. Research has shown that hours and hours of socializing are required to make one feel acceptably trusting of another person.
So when you’re in a room filled with mild acquaintances or full-on strangers, sit next to the shy kid. Make occasional commentary or ask questions. Remember what they said for next time. One of my favorite reminders right now is that small steps are still steps.
Vulnerability is a plus
I think both adults and kids can benefit from Brené Brown’s ideas on how to live a fuller life through honest vulnerability. People feel better around those who aren’t hiding or posing or pretending.
And when people feel good around you, friendships are coming.
Here, I think, is the true meaning behind the overused idea to “just be yourself.” It means not pretending to have it all together when you’re really nervous: just say, “I’m actually nervous, wow,” and let it be. It means apologizing for a mistake without throwing blame elsewhere. It means being brave when you’d rather hide.
All of these are excellent ways to introduce others to your true self, and that’s a person they can befriend.
Don’t talk about yourself
At least not all the time. Be aware of the balance in a conversation, and if you feel like you’re doing all the talking, ask some questions instead. In the interest of owning the aforementioned vulnerability, it’s fine to say, “Yikes, enough about me. How was your summer?”
Potential friends want to feel a sense of belonging, and that grows when they feel heard.
Don’t force the humor
Sincerity, encouragement and a good listening ear are all more stable than forced attempts to be funny, which can sometimes fall flat. Especially if you’re nervous about fitting in. Hilarity is flashy, but it can also feel desperate — a dangerous combination. You don’t have to be the funny one to be liked.
Be the open one. The kind one. The comforting one. Your humor will shine through when it’s natural and unforced.
Don’t try to make them like you
Because you can’t. Nothing you do or don’t do will make someone like you if you’re just not their type of person. Give yourself permission to move on, and give the other person (perhaps silent) permission to keep on feeling how they feel; they will anyway.
I listened to a podcast recently about likability, and the speaker compared herself with a peach. She said something like this: “I’m a bright, lovely, beautiful peach — perfectly likable. But my peachiness won’t make someone like me if they just really aren’t a peach person. Maybe they prefer pears or cherries. But I’m neither of those. I’m a peach. And the fact that I’m not their style doesn’t need to hurt my feelings.”
Plus, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Making friends can feel nerve-wracking if our thoughts are turned inward — wondering what they think of us or if they like us or if we sound cool enough when we talk. It’s pretty freeing to know that those people we’re worried about impressing are thinking mostly of themselves and their own concerns. So you be you (with honesty, sincerity, openness and the bravery to try a club or two), and your people will soon gravitate into your path.
Sarah Coyne is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is email@example.com.