On his first day of nursery school, the teacher said our son, James, paced back and forth along the fence of the playground, saying to himself, "This is a disaster. This is a disaster." My wife, Lynne, and I needed to help him adjust, but how? The teacher gave us something positive to hold on to each week, and months later, we were happy to learn that James "married" Jane. According to the teacher, they married in the tree house on the playground, where they held hands and swayed. The boy could count on having a new friend at his new school.
That day, when James came home, he built a tower of blocks. He stood before the blocks, clapped his hands and said it was as tall as him. He's learning how to make friends, Lynne and I thought. But the following week, James sat on the living room floor turning a block over and over in his hands, and asked, "Why doesn't she want to talk to me anymore?" The situation gave us the opportunity to give him something more important to his self-image than an answer to his question.
That summer we had pulled the diapers off of his rear-end and replaced them with underwear. We removed him from his old daycare center, and brought him home a newborn sister from the hospital. We tried to hug him through these changes, and as he sat there on the floor, a hug and a few pats on the head failed to turn his spirits. I tried a pep-talk.
"James, you're a handsome guy. And smart. You know the alphabet. And you can count to like... How high can you count?" I asked.
"Like, 16." he said.
"And are you fast?"
"I'm the fastest!" James said.
"So, she'll come around. If not, there's plenty of other girls in your class to be friends with." I said. But James didn't want me to try and build him up.
As he asked again, "Dad, how come she won't talk to me?" What I heard him really asking me was: How could someone not like me? How do I deal with rejection?
Lynne and I tried to re-create social scenarios in the classroom for James. We gave him lines like, "Hey, that toy looks like fun. Can I play too?" We talked about sharing. And while that may have helped a bit, that didn't quell his fears. James lit up like the red lights in the hallway during a fire drill when Jane greeted him in the morning. She seemed sweet, too. Another girl in his class said she would be his friend, but only if he ran around the room pinching each person -- which he did.
His grandmother got the goods on that story one day while she drove him in her car. I'm glad he felt comfortable enough with his grandmother to pipe up from the back seat and share the internal workings of his young heart, but why not his Mom and Dad? This seemed to raise the stakes in addressing his repeated question of why the girl in his class wouldn't talk to him.
We wondered aloud while eating dinner at James' grandparent's house: Did we make a mistake by pulling him from daycare? Maybe he wasn't ready. James' grandmother said, "You couldn't have held him back. He was bored at the daycare. He's so articulate, too. He needed the challenge." He's a young three. His birthday was in September. Many of his classmates turned four during the academic calendar. The slight age difference matters in nursery school.
His grandfather had a more practical solution, "Hey, James," he said, "You know what to do?"
"What?" James said, perking up from his booster seat, eager to hear words from the patriarch.
"You said Jane sits at your table. Right?" Papa asked.
"Well, start talking to the girl next to her. That'll get her attention."
How do we help James? It became an extended family quandary, as if James was in his twenties and losing the girl of his dreams.
Sometimes when I dropped him off, I'd stare for a moment from the hallway and watch him interact at his seat. Let go, I'd tell myself. As I turned my back and walked between the white and blue painted cinder block walls, boisterous young voices echoed, ushering me out the door. James didn't say squat when I pressed for anything about his day on the car rides home. School wiped him out. It was the wrong time to prod. He's more talkative at night. After we cleared the dishes from dinner, Lynne fed James' sister a bottle in the den, and I gave it another try.
"Hey, James. Let's build a tower." I said.
"No, thanks." He responded.
"C'mon. I need your help. We'll make it as tall as you."
As we grabbed different colors and placed one on top of the other, James said, "She still won't talk to me." All right, I thought. Enough! You're three. This is ridiculous. We're making another tower. We'll watch another show. Shake it off, little man. But it wasn't ridiculous. He was having a hard time adjusting to a lot of change at school and at home.
After we finished his new tower, James, stood and struck the blocks with his fist and they clattered to the hardwood floor. Before bedtime, Lynne found the blocks hidden in his old lunch cooler that he doesn't use anymore. Lynne brought the mini cooler into the living room, so we could look at his fallen tower together, so we could try to show him that he doesn't have to hide parts of himself from us, even if they're broken.