Q: Our 12-year-old son is a lively child, but somehow making friends doesn’t come easy to him. It’s a funny thing, because boys will come over to our house to play, but then won’t really be friends with him in school.
He’ll even ask them: “Why don’t you hang around with me in school?” Those who respond at all either shrug their shoulders or give some half-baked answer. Understandably, he feels very bad about the situation. He sometimes says that he has better things to play with than the other boys do, and that’s why they come to our house.
I asked the Rebbi what my son might be doing wrong, and he told me that sometimes he verbally puts other boys down by being too blunt and condescending. The Rebbi also said that my son is often nervous and worried about his grades and competitive in the classroom. He seems to make an issue of proving others wrong, and that must get on their nerves.
He tries to be “cool” to get the attention of classmates, and I’m afraid that he might exaggerate the truth (he does this at home). Please give us a way to work with our son to help him.
A: Being in a competitive class can be a struggle, and being competitive by nature can be a lifelong struggle. There is a reason why Rambam discusses, in the final lines of Hilchos Melachim, the idea that in Moshiach’s time there will be no more jealousy and competition. Competition and jealousy often go hand in hand, and cause a person to feel that he is never “good enough.”
Besides causing social issues among peers — and leading to those that involve exaggerating to the point of almost lying — continually discussing and comparing academic achievements is a straight pathway to continual disappointment.
Being same’ach b’chelko and aware of one’s own talents and positive attributes are essential to the positive gift of self-love that we need to bestow upon ourselves. Working to help build our children’s self-esteem has been discussed often in this column, and working on this will definitely help your son.
Perhaps one cause of your son’s nervous demeanor (which certainly can cause peers to distance themselves from him) is his insecurity in not feeling that he is “good enough.” Whether it’s not being smart enough, or savvy enough (reflected in his trying to act “cool,” as you put it), a continual feeling of not making the grade might be the cause of his self-doubting nature, which he then covers up by attempting to be over-confident.
Sometimes your son’s observing the behavior of other children — his cousins, perhaps — can help make him aware of his own social-skill shortcomings. When you comment on these observations, you should use the “cushion method,” which consists of verbalizing a positive opening statement to your son, then commenting on the actual issue at hand, and then ending with a supportive statement. It might sound like this: “Shloimi, you’re probably not at all aware of this, but when Chani and Moishe come, and you tell them how great you are at this electronic game, I think it makes them feel sad. It’s just the feeling that I get. I do realize that you’re so happy when they come. You’re a kind uncle to them…” Even if your son initially rejects your observations, at least a discussion has been opened up.
Quoting what the Rebbi’ said about his behavior is most likely unhelpful. He might say that the Rebbi is just saying lashon hara about him, that he never liked him anyway, etc.
In reference to classmates enjoying coming to your house, it could be that your son feels much more comfortable on his own turf. He may be a magnanimous host who is very generous and proud of his toys and games, and feels much less threatened in this less pressured environment.
You can comment on what a great host he is, and then say you’re just wondering if he might speak in a similar manner in school, and that might help him with making friends. A parent needs to speak in a tone of “curiosity” — and it’s important to be non-judgmental.