I’ve been bothered by one part of the heartwarming story of the child who didn’t want a birthday party because he said he had no friends and discovered — according to People magazine — that he actually had 2 million. (“No Friends for Lonely Fifth-Grader? Turns Out He Has 2 Million.“) I know — a very opportune story in light of all my recent party posts.
His mother brought Colin’s plight online, and people left encouraging words and sentiments of friendship on an online Facebook page. Over 2 million people have “liked” the page, and the boy is overwhelmed by all the good cheers.
And that is lovely. That is a good thing. That is the sort of story that makes you smile.
But those aren’t friends.
Friendship is more than hitting a “like” button — and that is true when it comes to high school students playing online with their face-to-face friends and it’s true when it comes to a little boy like Colin. People can say friendly things on a Facebook wall, but that does not make those people friends. Nor does Colin ever get a chance to practice being a good friend to other people. Friendship flows in two directions.
I fear that every day we are moving deeper into believing that hitting “like” really connotes friendship. That Facebook calling a connection “friends” makes two people connecting actually friends. But when you step back from the moment and let the likes die down, Colin is still where he started except perhaps with the knowledge of support in his back pocket. For a shy, unsure child, maybe having that reassurance would be enough to push that child out of their comfort zone and reaching out to others. But Colin’s problems go beyond low self-esteem. His mother states: “He eats lunch alone in the office every day because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone.”
There is a lot missing from this story. Why does the school condone this? From the wording in that statement, it sounds as if the school permits the other children to be terrible to this child. I hope the school has put out an effort to help this child learn socialization skills. What does the school’s counselor think of this situation? The mother also doesn’t state what she has done to help her child build and maintain friendships. Does she set up playdates? Are all of her attempts to help her child rejected? Was this the first time the topic of a party has been broached? Yes, we all want to keep returning to those 2 million clicks, but I can’t help but think about all the holes in this story. None of the articles I’ve read seem to want to focus on those holes, pretending that the act of Facebook likes is the Great and Powerful Oz, and pay no attention to that little boy behind the curtain.
Colin didn’t need 2 million people clicking a button. What he needs are a bunch of compassionate adults who happen to have compassionate kids who can give this child a chance. This family needs their son to meet other kids who will accept him as he is, and play with him. They do not need to become best friends, close confidantes that share all their secrets as they skip off into the sunset. But yes, every kid needs people they can turn to on the playground and join in their game. Kids need constant practice at socialization in order to master socialization skills such as team work and listening and compassion and discussion.
This really feels like the social media equivalent of that Jesus parable of “teach a man to fish” except it’s even less helpful. Hitting “like” doesn’t give this kid the fish to have a satisfying meal, and it certainly doesn’t teach him how to reel in the kids on the playground and make a friend.
I sort of wish that there had been fewer likes and more kids, in his town, who stepped forward and said, “let’s have a playdate.” His mother states, “I have seen him in this last month blossom because he knows he has 2.1 million friends and that is something that nobody else has. His self-confidence has grown.” Now that he has that self-confidence, I wish someone would step forward to make a real friendship. Because he hasn’t 2.1 million friends. He doesn’t even have one friend from this if no one connects with him in starting a conversation. What he has is a lot of finger clicks by a lot of people who know this is a problem and have no clue how to solve it. Or they know what actually needs to get done to solve it, but they choose not to step forward and do something beyond clicking “like.”
That inaction is a very real problem for a lot of kids: Colin isn’t the only child who has no friends.
My hope is that the story continues, and we hear about what his school has done to help foster relationships with other kids. That we hear about a local group for kids with special needs that invites Colin to join a structured social group that takes in mind his special needs. For instance, we have a movie-going group in town that is a social group for autistic kids. I’d love to hear that something like that exists in his neck of the woods, and that group invites the family to join them for their next outing. Moreover, I want to hear about local parents who threw a party for Colin, and their kids who stepped forward to say, “what you thought wasn’t actually true.” Because that’s the missing piece of this story. “Likes” from adults (and they must be over Colin’s age since he is about 10, and you can’t be on Facebook until you are 13 or older) are well and good, as are visits from hockey teams. It’s sweet. It’s clicky. It makes us feel good.
But it doesn’t actually change anything in the long run for Colin.
This is not to dismiss online friendships. Some of my closest friendships started online. A few of them continue to this day via a multitude of mediums such as email and phone calls, never getting to move into the face-to-face realm due to distance. If Colin gained a few online friendships from this page, I’d consider it a win too.
But I’m not getting that sense. And perhaps that’s just the cynic in me who spends a lot of time volunteering with kids and seeing how much they need friends. How many kids perceive themselves to be on the outskirts. And how that affects their behaviour when they go through their school day feeling as if no one has their back. I want Colin to get a very real, living and breathing friend. Not 2.1 million of them because no, friendship is not about collecting likes. I want Colin to get two of three kids who would want to come to a birthday party next year, or maybe hang out and play some video games, or at the very least, play some pick-up basketball at the park.
That I would consider a very sweet ending to this story.