The Rise and Fall of Friendship (in 30 minutes or less…)

The work I do with children of all ages often involves helping them to learn the intricacies and what Michelle Garcia Winner has called the “hidden rules” of building friendships. Social communication is fundamentally about making connections with others and friendship is the most precious of any of the connections we make in life. Sitting on a beach on Bowen Island this summer, trying to find a bit of peace and time to write a poem, perhaps, I was treated to a live instructional performance on friendship.

Kitty is about 6, I’d guess. She loves this beach and knows it well. She gathers shells, pebbles, tiny pieces of glass smoothed by the sea. She carries them to a smaller child, Annie. Annie has recently learned to walk. About 14 months old, she stumbles over small rocks closely guarded by her grandma who perches on a driftwood log breathing in the peace of of being close to water but fully aware of her small charge’s wanderings. Any mother knows this way of being.

Kitty clearly loves to show Annie all the treasures of her beach, to teach her the names she knows for each piece.

“This is glass, see its sparkly colour.”

“This is sea rock, 100 million years old.”

“This is a piece of shell. Look, it broke.”

Annie holds out her hand, accepts these gifts one by one as the big girl brings them to her. Kitty runs back and forth to water’s edge and to Annie, delighting in the toddler’s interest.

Kitty’s brother shows up (they must live close by) and Kitty calls to him:

“I’ve made a friend!”

The third child disrupts the rhythm of the game of treasure seeking and sharing. He’s brought buckets and shovels and has returned to finish building a sand castle he must have started earlier.

Kitty wants Annie to know her brother. She wants to show Annie how a bucket can hold all their treasures.

“This is my brother, Annie. Look, he’s brought you a bucket. Do you want a bucket?”

Annie reaches and takes the bucket. She toddles back to the pile of treasure Kitty shared. Kitty is distracted by the sand castle taking shape under her brother’s hands. She starts to help him, shaping walls, digging a moat.

Annie has returned to her solitary play. She loves to put objects into other objects: sea treasures into a bucket. She picks each one up, finger and thumb, lifts them carefully into the bucket. Now, the bucket contains all the treasures. In Annie’s world what goes in must come out. She takes the bucket, toddle-runs toward the water. Grandma tries to breach the peace she knows Annie is about to disrupt.

“No, Annie. Don’t throw them in the sea! No! Annie – stop!”

Too late, the treasures tumble and make delicious small splashes as they descend into shallow waters, return to their home, the rocky bed at water’s edge. Annie turns back, no expression of delight or mischief or sadness on her face. Putting in and tossing out is simply a game she loves to play and it’s done for now. She’s looking out for what is next.

Not so for Katy, five years older, who notices all too late the fate of her treasure. Not a second is wasted on words. Tears and a loud sob of desolation. She runs to Annie.

“You are NOT my friend! You threw them away!”

She runs up the beach no doubt in search of parental comfort.

Annie remains unmoved. She continues to toddle, pick up and drop inconsequential small objects. No aesthetic, nor the propriety (the “hidden rules”) of beach-combing with a new friend interrupts her singular pleasure, her ego-centric play.

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