Several months ago, my (then) 4yr old made an announcement.
She was clad in one of her masterpieces of an outfit consisting of a bright green shirt with trees and little stick figure kids on the front paired with floral shorts. To top it off was a bright, multi-colored cloth headband situated atop her tangled curls in a fashion recognizable by Woodstock goers.
Right there in the Panda Express drive thru line, she propped her feet up on the back of my husband’s driver seat from her car-seat and declared,
“I made 3 new friends today. You know how you make friends? Play. And then one heart beats into another heart and then you’re friends.”
There we were in our Rav4, the smell of fried rice wafting through open windows, waiting on our orange chicken and chow mein. We had just picked up our two daughters from their second day back at daycare. They had been home for a 12-week pandemic induced quarantine where my husband and I both worked full time from home and attempted to keep our 2 and 4yr olds semi-occupied. Many of our daughters’ little pals hadn’t come back to daycare though. I cringe at the idea of going to social events where there are more than just my few close friends. So, thinking about our littles having to make new friends during a global pandemic instilled in me concern for what state their little hearts would be in when I buckled them back into their car seats.
“Oh yea? The hearts just beat into each other, huh? And then you are friends?” I asked, trying to mirror her casual tone.
“Well, no. You have to play first, Mama.”
I flicked my eyes, now the size of half dollars instead of their usual almond shape, over to my husband whose eyebrows had inched a little further towards his hair-line as he smiled a proud-dad-smile if I ever saw one. I turned, seat belt straining at my chest, and looked at this little girl of mine whose spirit drives her to dance with the same abandon of King David in the streets, yet had dropped an elegant and poignant truth bomb while waiting for take-out. I saw those bright brown eyes just looking out the window. Her lips playing catch with a shadow of a smile as she watched the red and black drive thru menu roll slowly out of sight behind us.
My 4-year old just described empathy and relational fundamentals. In a way that my graduate degree in counseling couldn’t touch, yet her thoughts were already on to those noodles she’d be eating for dinner.
Kids though. Gifted with the ability to compress the jumbled grains of sandy life into shards of truth, crystal clear and razor sharp. My daughter understood the secret of making, and keeping, friends in a simplistic way. She understood it and presented it as a truth that just… is.
If you want to make friends, you must play with other people.
Kids use play to interact with their environment and each other, it’s their form of communicating and learning. Learning how to build towers, sure, but also how they learn about each other. How they learn if their friend likes to run and jump or sit and pick flowers. How they learn who is sad when dropped off and who is sad when picked up. How they learn if their friend needs a high five for achieving something great, or a pat on the arm while they sit on the curb in silence after a fall. Playing is communication. It’s how they learn and act out empathy.
It’s how their “heart beats into another heart”.
Adults though. We don’t see strangers and invite them over for some Lego building or Frozen Castle play. Perhaps this is why we have a hard time remembering the simple yet elusive art of getting to know each other. Perhaps this is why my 60-credit hour graduate counseling program had whole classes dedicated to teaching us the importance of learning and acting out empathy. At some point, we’ve forgotten.
We need to remember how to play. Adult play involves engaging with people and learning about them; not just their political leanings or what football team is their favorite, but diving deeper into potentially awkward conversations and uncomfortable silences to discover joys and fears. Hopes and hurts. This means actively listening, without an agenda or need to flap our lips. We need to learn when to sit in silence, holding sacred space for pain, and when to shout with joy in celebration of each other’s victories. Being vulnerable with each other the way kids are naturally, before the building of walls and hardening of defenses.
We aren’t meant to do life alone. The hardwired need for connection is biological, emotional, and spiritual – my (now) 5 year old feels it. She feels her heart calling to other hearts like a beacon in a search and rescue mission, and she knows what to do. Now, more than ever, we need to dig deep and live with childlike abandon, allowing our hearts to call to one another. Allow them to call, and answer others’ call with empathy and intentionality.
We need to find those people whose hearts will beat into ours and call us friends.