For decades, my family has rented a house on Long Beach Island each summer. Some years, the house was filled with family – children and grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles, and friends who may as well be family. Other years, the crew was smaller – just me, my husband and a family friend or two. Whether packed with sleeping bags on floors or relatively sparse with everyone enjoying their own bedroom, we eagerly looked to our yearly getaway.
Last summer was the first in many years – 30 or more – when we did not make the journey down the Parkway to Exit 63 and on to LBI. Certainly, the pandemic halted many families’ vacation plans. Our family was also deep in grief, for my step-father died in late June and my husband passed not a month later. The beach vacation was little more than a passing thought. When images of summers past did cross our minds, we hurriedly packed away those memories as they only added to the profound loss we were all feeling.
The first months after losing a dear one are an odd and perplexing mix of emotions and responsibilities. Waves of sadness and tears come with frightful randomness and no warning, like in the middle of a meeting or while on the phone with an insurance company. Yet, one must attempt to put these feelings to the side when tending to many rather urgent matters, sorting through “important documents” and figuring out tax, medical, and financial issues. Eventually, however, the paperwork is finished and life carries on around us. The excuses for avoiding the pain of loss thin out and we find ourselves confronting what had been held at bay by being busy. I am grateful to have had wonderful friends during this time, friends who were eager to listen and offer a kind word and prop me up on those days when it all felt too much. To have and be such a friend is one of life’s great gifts.
For young people, friendships become increasingly important as they move through the middle grades. You may have noticed already that your child, who once shared so much with you, now seeks out friends instead, and it takes some cajoling from you to learn from them what used to flow freely. This is entirely normal, if a bit alarming to us as parents. We worry that our children are keeping secrets from us when they turn to a peer instead of mom or dad. And sometimes they are (again, normal adolescent behavior). We are increasingly supplanted by tweens as the confidants in children’s lives as they look to make stronger connections with other young people sharing their journey. (For more on why it is human nature to turn to peers over parents during adolescence, watch this TED Talk by Daniel Siegel of the Greater Good Science Center.)
These past twelve months have quite dramatically changed how our children’s friendships operate, for they cannot easily pal around with each other the way they normally would nor visit each other’s homes or have parties as they did before March 2020. Instead, they seek connection across distances of six feet or via computer screen. And young people are incredibly resilient and creative in doing so, making friends and nurturing existing friendships despite the challenges of this pandemic. They find new ways to connect, to support one another, to find joy and have fun. In fact, a number of our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders have broadened their concept of “friend” this year by stepping outside comfort zones and engaging virtually with people they may never meet in person as part of our reimagined service learning program.
When I think of my closest friends, those few I have known since my middle school years, I note they share certain qualities, the same qualities I see in abundance in our middle school service team members: empathy, caring, generosity, and grace. Nowhere are these traits more evident than in two of our new virtual service learning programs: Lower School Reading Buddies and our visits with residents at the Highlands Care One long-term care facility.
What do I see when a Middle School student reads a picture book to a 4-year old Lower School student during a Reading Buddy visit? I see a young person eager to share her love of reading with a new friend and the joy that is exchanged as they laugh together during a particularly silly passage. How do I feel when watching a seventh grader introduce himself to an elderly resident at Highlands? I am delighted by his eagerness to share a bit of himself and then to listen to the advice and wisdom of one who was but a stranger moments before. Being a friend, particularly to someone most in need of one, is perhaps one of the noblest acts we can perform. It means giving of ourselves – our time and emotional energy – to the happiness of another.
We must also, however, be kind to ourselves, restoring our reserves occasionally so that we can be that strong and true friend. It can be hard for parents to put themselves first, but we must do so at times in order to recharge those internal batteries that power our caretaking engines. This means taking time out from doing to being and sometimes, it means getting away for a few days. What might you do as the weather warms and the days grow longer? Are the mountains calling? Does a visit to the city and a walk in Central Park sound enticing? Or, will you perhaps take a drive down the Parkway to Exit 63, as I shall be doing, for a few days at the beach?
Whatever plans you are able to make for the coming summer months, I do hope they include time with friends but also time just for you.
Want to learn a bit more about the adolescent brain and the fascinating ways it is constantly developing? Watch Daniel Spiegel’s animated short film: The Adolescent Brain.