Last one. (I think.) So the party posts brought up some interesting thoughts about reciprocation. What we expect of others or what we do because we think other people expect it. That murky grey area where you wonder if you’re doing enough. If you’re pulling your weight. If you’re a good friend or community member or neighbour.
I have some pretty amazing friends, and it’s hard to keep up with their amazingness. They do a lot. It makes you want to do a lot too; not to compete but because you know how good you feel being on the receiving end of someone else’s care. It makes you want to step up your care game so you can make someone else feel like that. So you can let someone else know you have their back or you want them to be happy.
When I say reciprocation, I don’t mean keeping a spreadsheet where you look at the times when you’ve borrowed a cup of your neighbour’s sugar and balance it against the times when you’ve shoveled their walk. It would be an odd relationship if it was always perfectly balanced. Give and take isn’t like cars alternating lanes in a merge; it isn’t even. But a good friendship is sort of like a good diet: you don’t look at an individual day to see if you’re eating well; you look at the entire week. And you don’t look at a single day to see if you’re doing enough; you look at the scope of a friendship.
The reason you need to look at a long length of time is that some people do hundreds of tiny things while some people do two or three huge things. And, of course, the weight of each act rests in both the hands of the giver and the receiver. What I might perceive as the greatest thing ever done, the other person may not see as a big deal. And vice versa.
So no, I’m not talking about keeping score, but I think we all do note from time to time whether we feel settled in the friendship; and sometimes we think to ourselves, “am I being a good enough friend?” or “are they a good enough friend?” And invitations are mixed in with all of that.
I think if you’re waiting to receive back exactly what you give, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re waiting to receive back the sort of thing you give — for instance, you cook meals for others when they are ill, and you expect some sort of care like that when you are ill whether it be a meal or someone helping with your errands — you’ll be disappointed. People answer you in their own care language.
Sometimes Josh says something to me in Hebrew, but I answer him in English. English is the language I feel most comfortable using even though I understand what he’s saying. That is a lot how our interactions with other people work. We speak to them in our caring language, even though we understand theirs. My caring language is food. I like providing food for others. It’s a way I show a person that I care about them, whether it’s offering to bring food to a party or cooking for them when they’re ill or making mishloach manot for Purim, I feel very comfortable silently conveying how much I care about another person through food. I am less comfortable with other ways to show care; sometimes they don’t even occur to me until I’m on the receiving end of one of these actions. And then I understand that is their way of saying they care about me. But I tend to answer back in my own language.
And just as it is nice that we have so many different languages in the world, I think it’s a good thing that we don’t all show care in the exact same way. It means there is almost always someone out there who fills a specific niche for you; who is your go-to person when you need comfort in a certain way.
But I don’t think it’s too much to expect to see something in return. In the same way that no one wants to carry on a one-sided conversation, I don’t think many people look to carry on a one-sided relationship. We expect to see some outreach on the other person’s part, even if that outreach differs greatly from our own. Hence why I said that we still invite people who don’t invite the twins to their party. If the friendship is there, I don’t see why you wouldn’t invite the child along.
But here’s a question: suppose you extended invitation after invitation to the same person — to see movies, grab a drink, go on a trip. Every invitation originates with you, and while your friend is enthusiastic to go along with your invitations, she never picks up the phone and calls you. She never tells you about this great preview she saw and would you like to see the movie when it comes out. At what point would you start to feel a little confused: does she like you? Does she sort of endure you? Why is this relationship lopsided? Is it possible they really like you but they lack the confidence or social savviness to extend invitations (this describes me sometimes)? Would you let this friendship go on indefinitely in this manner? Would you give it a handful of invites before you started turning your attention to someone who seemed a little more eager to have your company?
In the currency of kids, the party is king. As adults, we have a thousand ways of telling the people around us that they are important to us. But a party — for a kid — is an important tool for conveying to their friends that they enjoy being with them. Yes, they can ask them to play at recess, they can ask them on a play date if that fits into their parent’s schedule, they can share their Halloween candy. There are other options, but the birthday party one is easy. And at a certain age, they know the weight of a party. To have or not have a party was a pretty easy internal question when they were five. To have or not have a party is a trickier question at nine. Obviously, the end answer will be different for each person, so it isn’t as if there is one “correct” answer.
But I do think that one of my jobs as their parent is to be their friend coach. To help them understand how to navigate the social world. How to be a good friend, a good community member, a good decision maker when it comes to spending social capital. This helping-someone-else-grow-up thing is hard. Keeping a kid alive: pretty easy. You feed them, water them, give them a little fresh air, and all is usually fine. Turning a kid into a good person: much harder. It means a lot of tears, a lot of letting your child fail so you can help them do it better next time, a lot of talking out situations and role-playing and listening. So if I maybe think too closely about parties and the like, it’s because I feel that is part of my job. At least, the way I see my job, which may have very different tasks from another parent’s job. Just as there is more than one way to be social, there is more than one way to parent.
I didn’t have an easy time socially as a kid. My parents had a lot of work to do as my friend coaches. I spent a lot of time in tears, a lot of time feeling left-out, a lot of time working really hard and not seeing the pay-off. They were great coaches, but I had shitty luck as a social player in elementary school.
When Josh met me, I was teaching middle school, and he couldn’t understand how I could stomach it. How I could chew my sandwich and listen to child after child after child dump their middle school woes on my desk. He didn’t even like to visit me there because it reminded him of how much he hated that time in life, but honestly, as much as my middle school years sucked, being around middle schoolers never phased me. I was like a surgeon who could look at someone’s festering insides and then consume a steak dinner. Their problems usually didn’t get under my skin.
Fast forward to my own children going through elementary school, and I seem to have lost all my coping mechanisms. I mean, yes, I can still work with middle schoolers and feel unphased. But when it’s my child coming home from school with that lip trembling, and they ask if they can talk to me alone… my heart stops. I think back to all the times I pretended to be sick at school so my mother would pick me up and let me fall apart in the car. Growing up is hard. Navigating friendships when you’re a kid is hard. And then, if you’re lucky, you get to go through it all over again with your kids.
Yes, it’s their problems and their social skills to learn, but I feel those growing pains too. That why-aren’t-they-my-friend pain and that how-can-I-be-a-good-friend confusion and the how-do-I-make-someone-a-friend learning curve. I’ve been there, done that.
When they were little, when they discovered that they weren’t invited to a birthday party, the only angle they considered was that they were missing out on fun. They were missing out on Chuck E Cheese games or pony rides or jumping inside an inflated piece of plastic. But somewhere around six, the twins started realizing what not being invited to a birthday party meant: you didn’t make the cut, friendwise. And sometimes they totally get why they weren’t invited, but sometimes they wonder what the lack of invitation means; have they misjudged how close they are to the other person? Is their friendship real, or did they misunderstand what playing together meant?
They are figuring themselves out, figuring the social thing out, and I can see them internally debating on a daily basis how much they want to keep up with the Joneses. Or really, how much they want to speak the same caring language as everyone else and when they’ll be ready to develop their own caring language. Right now, that party is an easy way to tell another group of kids in no uncertain terms that they really enjoy hanging out with them. They’ll say that in other ways such as talking with their friend on the baseball bench or letting the other kid pick the game at recess. But with one big act, they can reciprocate all the good feelings of inclusion they’ve gotten to feel this year from other people.
In the future, they’ll figure out other ways to say that. And they’ll learn that it’s better to say that to a committed, small group of people vs. trying to say that to a lot of people who don’t really care all at the same time. And hopefully, by that point, I will have done my work well and I’ll be sending good friend material into this world. The world needs more good friend people.
How much do you care about reciprocation?