For the first few months when he started big school, my oldest child would cling to me and weep when I dropped him off in the mornings. Although I kept smiling and reassuring him that he would be alright, my stomach churned with worry. He’d always been slow to warm up to others in unfamiliar situations, hiding behind me at social functions and becoming mute when meeting people for the first, second or tenth time. At day care, it had taken half a year for him to stop wailing at the drop off and two years to develop a friendship with just one child. When it came to kindergarten orientation, going to a strange room with strange people had terrified him to the extent that he’d called his buddy a “stupid boy” then suddenly bolted for the gates. Then he’d announced a plan to burn down the school as I lugged him back to class. It all made me wonder if and when he would settle down and make friends.
Much to my relief, he didn’t set anything on fire and mustered the courage gradually to step away from the side-lines during recess. He came home with more and more news about games he’d played and with whom, mentioning so many names that I found it hard to keep track. Other boys and girls would chat with him before morning assembly and the separation anxiety at drop-off ceased. Eventually I was organising play dates and shuttling him to birthday parties where he would disappear immediately into a crowd of frolicking kids. At the end of the year, his teacher reported that he was “a lovely, friendly and well liked boy,” which made me whoop for joy. And I rejoiced again when he made friends easily in his Year 1 class the following year. It seemed my days of worrying about his social skills were over.
Until one day after school when I asked him casually “who did you play with?” With a grin on his face, he replied “no one.” I was stymied. It had been too hot, he explained, so at recess he’d just wanted to sit underneath a tree, which sounded sensible. The next day, he told me excitedly about a ladybug he’d seen whilst exploring the playground on his own. By the third day of solo play when he sat and counted the seconds to figure out how long the lunch break is, I started to fret once again about his social wellbeing.
I remembered times from my own childhood when I’d spent playtime alone on the fringes and holding back tears because I’d had a fight with my friends, or because the class bully had convinced others to shun me, or because I’d been too shy and nervous to ask if I could join in. Was he experiencing any of these problems?
His behaviour at home didn’t indicate so, as he still ate heartily, slept well, spent lots of time laughing and jumping on beds, didn’t try to get out of going to school, and wasn’t clobbering his little brother any more than usual. At the drop off, my antennas were on full alert for taunts or whispers behind his back, but all I observed were the same happy faces that usually greeted him. He also still had good natured running races with classmates headed in the same direction after school. I approached his teacher and she assured me he was settled in class, worked well in groups and hadn’t been bullied, as far as she knew. Not satisfied with her powers of observation, I took to rocking up early for my reading volunteer duties so I could spy on him surreptitiously while lunch was in progress, but the grounds are massive and I could never spot him. At night I couldn’t sleep. Why had he been playing on his own? WHY?
In the end I decided to just ask my son as nonchalantly as possible. “Sometimes I like playing by myself,” he answered matter-of-factly with a shrug. I paused for a moment, digesting his words and looking at him as if for the first time. He wasn’t just too tall now to hide behind me, he hadn’t needed to in a long time. I couldn’t stop smiling. It dawned on me finally that, apart from having a mother who may have helicopter parenting issues, my son didn’t have a problem. He’d developed into a confident, imaginative and independent child who is comfortable being around others as well as being alone.
Nowadays I check in with him once every few weeks. Sometimes he plays ball games or messes about in the sand pit with other children, sometimes he chats with a friend, and sometimes he wanders the playground contentedly on his own. I’m so proud of the well-rounded social being he’s growing to be and I bet one day he’ll be an awesome orientation buddy to another scared and lonely child.