Monday, March 16, 2015

On Friendship

Many questions that we were asked early on in our unschooling journey have now either stopped surfacing so much or have taken on a different form. But there is one which seems to fall into the permanent category, because it never seems to go away nor want to take another form :)

Yes, it is the question about social skills and friendship. One that I am kind of tired of answering, but still want to, because it has been one of the areas (the other one being food) that has completely changed my thinking and where my learning curve has been the steepest. And as is the case with everything else, my dear son has been my Guru. And I see this question as an opportunity for me to share what I have learned from him with others.

So here are some of the questions I have been asked countless times! -

Does he have friends?
Does he like to play with other children?
Does he miss being around other children? 
Do you have a community or a group that meets often?
You must be creating opportunities for him to meet other people and other children that would stimulate him...
and so many more that seem to have the same shade as these questions!

In the beginning, I did struggle with these questions, because I did not know what I was doing myself. But over the years, and with frequent, deep conversations with my son, where I simply shared all my fears and doubts without any holding back, my understanding and way of seeing this whole aspect of life has transformed. 

In some ways i think unschooling has worked for us beautifully because of the way the three of us are as people. My husband, my son and myself - all like our own company. Not that we don't like being with people. My husband loves meeting new people, while my son and me would much rather be home and invest our time and energy into nurturing few but deep friendships. But we have just stopped going out of our way to seek company.....simply because we love being by ourselves, with ourselves and we have come to trust Life to give us what we need at any given point in time.

So the need for being with other children was hardly ever there for my son, and when it came up, it was not a need that he wanted desperately to be fulfilled. The early years of our journey was all about 'nesting' - it was a time to de-stress ourselves from all the stress of having to conform to systems that we just could not be a part of; it was a time to simply be home and learn more about ourselves and each other without any other distractions; it was a time when we learned how beautiful and empowering it was to truly be alone with ourselves.

Of course, the fear of not having children to play with everyday or even once in a while was there, and it still keeps coming up, especially when I think of our age and what would happen when we are not around. But it doesn't worry me so much anymore. There is this deep trust that the Universe will take care somehow and that he will get what he needs. This is not a helpless resignation of sorts to destiny or a giving up of one's power to create. It is rather about owning our power by believing in what we are doing and the path we have chosen to take.

So whenever this fear came up, and even now, if it comes up, I just tell my son that I need to talk to him and share whatever I am going through in a way that I think he will understand. 'When in doubt, simply ask' - has been my motto of sorts. And it has helped immensely. A week ago, this fear came up again and I asked him how he was feeling about not being able to meet his old friends, about not having any friends and kids to play with where we stay now, whether he missed his friends or children, and what he would like me to do about it, or what he would like to do about it.

"Why do you keep asking me this question amma?" was the first thing he asked me. And so I told him why.

"I do miss my friends, but I don't want to go back to where we were staying, or even close by. I am happy where we are now. i love the place, the nature around; it is quiet, peaceful and there is so much more space's ok if I cannot meet them.....I am happy by myself. I don't need to play with children everyday. It is fine now the way it is," he added.

I was much relieved and said this to him:"So will you let me know when you want to do something about this? Maybe then we will find a way together....So I won't ask you this anymore? And you will tell me when you want to be with other children?"

"Yes. I will. Don't worry," he said nonchalantly.

A few days later, he expressed a desire to play Minecraft with someone. He wanted to play it 'live', and not online. So I did the best I could. I put out a request on the FB group for our gated community, asking if anyone would like to play or learn Minecraft or Lego. I got a response from the mother of a 3 year old girl. When I shared that with Raghav, he said:" Ya, that's fine! I can teach her. Age does not matter for friendship!" :)

How true! Don't we all have friends or people we relate to, of different ages in our circles? Then why do we want to make kids get into chicken coops when it comes to friends?

Why do we also have this manic need to 'make friends' and 'keep friends' at any cost?

Yes, we are social beings. But 'social' encompasses a whole range, a whole spectrum of needs doesn't it? We are not all social or sociable all the time. We go through phases and cycles in everything, including our friendships.

Then why do we see kids differently?
Do we think that is the only way we can allay our fears - of being different, of being alone?
Do we think friendships will make them feel good about themselves?
Do we think that will help them cope with boredom?
Do we think that will keep them occupied and less depressed or aloof?
Do we look at that as a way of us getting time for ourselves?
Is it our need or their need?
Why do we really want them to make friends?

I often feel that the answers to all our challenges and our fears lie in the questions themselves, if only we hold and stay with those questions long enough, instead of rushing in to 'sort' them out. All we need is that precious pause......

My tryst with working with kids and adults with special needs, especially autism, and knowing someone with autism, quite closely, including wondering initially if my son had any 'difficulties', has stirred up many questions. Hard questions that I asked myself repeatedly over the years. is funny that when we know that a kid has a 'special need' or a 'disability', we are immediately able to discount their behaviour towards us. We are immediately more accepting of them, more compassionate towards them. We at least pause for a moment and wonder why he/she might be doing or saying something. But we don't react the same way to kids who we think are 'normal'. What IS 'normal' anyway?

But we also have this idea of 'being sociable and social' so deeply ingrained in us I feel, that we want to 'fix' that in kids who aren't; we want to make them learn how to cope and adjust to the world, and so we 'expect' and 'teach' them social skills. Of course there may be some who want to interact but don't know how to, but there may also be some who simply don't want to, because they don't feel a need to. Are we really 'listening' to them? Each one of them? Are we giving them the space that they want and need, to be themselves? Sometimes I wonder if we do.

So yes, my son still screams when he is frustrated or has reached his threshold of tolerance for noise or something else, he will scream irrespective of who is or isn't around - at home, outside, anywhere;  he can look through people as if they did not exist at all, he can be so completely lost in his world that he wouldn't even remember to greet someone; and at the same time he can be most understanding and 'friendly' and be chatty with people - even complete strangers. When he needs some time by himself, or is tired, he shares that openly with his friends, and asks if they could play on their own for a while. Those who know him, understand him and give him that space. Those who don't, simply don't, and he is okay with that. And so are we.

Of course, we have had numerous conversations about how others would feel. He has himself asked me to remind him to greet or say 'thank you' to others only because they expect that. With some people, I explain to them the beauty of waiting for that to emerge on its own. With some others, we have mutually agreed to just 'please' them, as long as he feels okay about doing that in that moment.

We have stayed for extended periods of time alone with ourselves at home, hardly meeting anyone for months and years. In that period we have come to understand and love ourselves a little more. Now, when we get an opportunity to go out and be with or do things with people, we are more ready and willing to explore new ground, and feel more ease in doing that without any fears. This I think has been the fruit of our long, often challenging and arduous journey of being with our own selves.

Here are some things that I have learned from my son and our journey so far:
  • I need to first be my own best friend. I need to love all parts of me. Then, it is easier for me to be friends with others and for others to be friends with me. Then, you are not dependent in an unhealthy way on people outside of yourself.
  • If I am bored, I am bored. I don't need friends or 'stimulation' to fill up that boredom. I need to figure out for myself what I can do or not in that boredom.
  • Be Yourself. Don't change yourself just because you want people to like you. When you are yourself, the right people will love the real you. Just be prepared to wait for them,however long it takes! 
  • One needs to love oneself pretty well to be able to take 'unsociable' comments from others. And most often, the children who we think of as 'unsociable' are the ones who are mirroring what we need to look at more deeply in our own selves. I have gone through some extremely embarrassing moments when my son was 'rude', 'misbehaving' and most 'unsociable' - both in my own eyes and in the eyes of people around me. But those moments were the ones which told me how much more I needed to look within myself really, and ask myself some tough questions.
  • We each need to be given space to be able to interact on our own terms. That is the basis of true friendship and understanding.
  • Everything rests in the 'seeing' - how we choose to see what is playing out before our eyes. We can choose to see something as 'rude' and also see the same thing as an expression of someone's sensitivity to something. The way we see it moulds our response.
Yesterday, I was at the 30th anniversary function of Vidya Sagar, an organisation which works with children and adults with multiple disabilities and their families. While a few of us were chatting about old times, 30year old A, who was on the wheelchair, suddenly grabbed hold of another parent's saree and it tore. She adjusted it while this man's mother apologised for her son's behaviour. The parent however smiled, asked if he wanted her to come closer and talk to him, offered him something to eat which he refused, and then bent over and chatted with him. He was then fine. It was a beautiful, poignant moment of connection.

I feel deeply now that the way we choose to see a behaviour like this depends on the space we are in in that moment, and how we choose to see it. Can we share how we feel honestly and vulnerably, while also listening to ourselves in the other? What is that voice inside us saying? Why are we getting triggered or hurt? Perhaps if we stop and look more deeply into that space, we will know why and respond accordingly. Perhaps then we will be more inclusive, more accepting of our own selves and therefore the other. Perhaps then we will know the meaning of real friendship.

And I believe that our children are here showing us the way.....little lanterns lighting up the road less travelled....into a new world with countless, unimaginable possibilities that could be a far-cry from what we know today as 'friendship' or anything else for that matter.

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