My daughter leads an isolated life by every measure. She's the only child at home; we live in a sparsely-populated, rural community; and, for whatever reason, she lacks the drive to socialize. In school, she sets herself apart from the others in subtle but effective ways, like drawing or reading or daydreaming.
When I’ve signed her up for extracurricular activities or sports, her stated goal has been, “to avoid contact with the ball and kids.” She tags along with me to gatherings where she interacts with my friends’ children, but since none of them are her same age, it’s more perfunctory than social.
Now, I’m not completely insensitive to her individuality. I realize that I have a budding introvert on my hands, but every child needs a friend. Every child deserves to experience a relationship fostered by shared interests and a mutual fondness, regardless of her social reticence, and my daughter is no exception.
Even she admitted it would be nice to have someone to play with on the weekends, or join her at the movies, or someone to buy a souvenir for when we visit her grandparents in Florida. But a parent can’t force these things. True friendship must develop organically, unencumbered by hovering adults.
Last year, shortly after returning from winter break, my wish came true. My daughter started talking about a girl named Agatha, who was in the other fourth grade class. She and Agatha played at recess, they ate lunch together, they both liked to read and thought “pretty” was overrated. I held my breath, not wanting to skew the delicate progression of what appeared to be a connection.
Weeks passed with steady news of Agatha, and I grew confident in my daughter’s assessment of their reciprocal bond. When the girls exchanged phone numbers, my mind raced ahead in its typical fashion, and I had visions of this turning into a lifelong friendship. I suggested my daughter take a big step – the first of its kind – and invite Agatha to spend the night. Her parents said yes, I friended her mother on Facebook, and my daughter and I started planning. I wanted Agatha to have the time of her life at our sleepover.
Agatha did, indeed, have a wonderful time at our house. She had such a wonderful time that she came back the following weekend, and the weekend after that. She gave me big hugs whenever I saw her at school and sent me a Valentine. She spent an entire rainy spring break week with us, watching movies and eating junk food.
She would send texts to my daughter, on my phone, and ask – in that direct, unfettered manner kids have – to come over. I always agreed. I figured Agatha must be as fond of my daughter as my daughter was of her, plus she was easy.
Unlike my daughter, Agatha ate everything I served, she made her bed without being asked, and she offered to help me put the groceries away. She even liked watching boring, grown-up shows on TV. One night when my husband and I sat down to watch the debates, my daughter naturally fled to her room, but Agatha stayed and curled up next to me on the couch. "I love politics," she said, which I found both endearing and suspicious.
There were other things, too. Agatha took to lingering in the kitchen, long after my daughter ran outside to play, asking me with feigned interest about books, and films, and bras – topics she knew I couldn’t resist discussing. That she was trying to win my favor was admittedly flattering, but wasn’t she here to be my daughter’s best friend? Sometimes – but not always – my daughter would come back inside, looking for Agatha, wondering what was taking her so long.
“Who’s your best friend?” I asked my daughter pointedly one day.
“I don’t really have one.”
“Not Agatha,” yet Agatha was with us nearly every weekend.
One day in early summer, I checked my phone to see a string of increasingly persistent texts from Agatha: Can I come over? Ask if I can come over. Text me back. Where are you? Fine, don’t text back.
I responded that it was not a good time, but we would be in touch. Immediately, Agatha wanted to know when, when, when? She was bored, her mom had no good food, could she please come over? When?
In my blind willingness to procure a friend for my daughter, I had created an odd, unhealthy relationship with a person whom my daughter was not particularly fond of, and I was going to have to end it. I had to break up with Agatha.
Six months later, my daughter is still an introvert—maybe even more of one. She listens more than she talks, and she’s alone more than with others. Agatha just now resumed speaking to her after weeks of the silent treatment, but I wouldn’t say they're friends.
As for me, I learned my lesson: Friendship can’t be forced any more than the need for it can be projected.