Making Friends Like a 5th Grader

We are a sociable family. We love spending time with good, old friends and enjoy the excitement of making new friends. Most people have a pretty interesting story when you get beyond surface conversation. I have my introverted moments (I sometimes hide and pretend I’m not home when someone knocks on our door after 7pm and, at one point, I may have looked into a sensory deprivation chamber for the home), but for the most part, I love socializing and meeting new people. Scott and the kids are 100% social butterflies. They seem to have never-ending energy for people and conversation (which is probably why I need a sensory deprivation chamber).

Every time we move, we leave good friends behind. It’s the worst part of moving. The thrill of meeting new people never gets old, though, and the best part is when those new people become friends. We’ve learned that making friends is mostly about putting yourself out there and striking up conversations. Once you get the basics covered, you quickly realize who among your acquaintances are decent and thoughtful people, share some of your values, and are fun to be around. BINGO! Friend material.

I learned an important lesson about making friends in the 5th grade. That year, we moved from central California to Maryland and I didn’t know a soul. I also had an unstylish wardrobe that included a pair of white Reebox knock offs and a closet full of denim jumper dresses (in a land of Keds and Esprit) and, because my mom cut my cowlicky hair, a crooked and unfortunate bowl cut. My mom, in her endless wisdom and confidence in her kids, sent me and my sisters down the street to knock on doors to find friends. When that tactic didn’t work, she suggested I join a club at school to meet “like-minded” kids. I don’t recall ever taking her suggestion to join a club (possibly because there was no “baby bunny fan club”) but I did eventually make some lifelong friends. And I’ve carried her wisdom with me my whole life. Making friends is not a passive process. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can’t sit back and hope they come to you. You need to get out there, join some clubs, pound the pavement, knock on doors, bowl cut and all, and find yourself some awesome, “like-minded” friends.

Use your kids to meet people. Families with kids tend to congregate in certain, predictable, areas – playgrounds, anywhere with water, restaurants that serve hamburgers, and the Lego minifigures section of the open-air market, for example. Kids provide a natural conversation topic and buffer when you’re meeting new people. They also provide an excuse for getting together (“Little Jimmy desperately wants to play with your son Hercules. We have to get together because the kids won’t take no for answer!”) when it feels awkward to say “Hi, I just met you in the street. Why don’t you, a total stranger, come to my house and have dinner tomorrow?”

You can also meet people by registering your kids for school. Schools are a great place to make friends because you see the same, exhausted faces at the 7:25am drop off every morning and can start with sympathetic nods and move on to full conversations. We found a great school for our kids, paid the non-refundable registration and materials fees, met some new people, and then promptly decided to homeschool instead. I like to think of the money we lost as payment for the few friends we made in the two weeks the kids went to school.

Facebook. Like most people, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I shut down my profile and delete the whole thing about once every three years, then rejoin 6-9 months later. I hate how it’s a giant time waster, how perfectly intelligent people share memes about Hillary Clinton torturing kittens, and the “Facebook knows what you eat and watches you sleep” part. However, when traveling or moving to new places, Facebook is an indispensable tool for connecting with other people. There are international groups for expat families in just about any location you can imagine, with subgroups for every kind of adventure. Exploring Siberia in a converted ambulance with your nine kids? There’s a Facebook group for that! Sailing around the world in a Sunfish with your quadrilingual toddler? Yep, there are others, and they’d love to meet up in Kiribati! We’ve connected with so many expat families, found out about events and activities in the area, and located services, all through Facebook.

Be a joiner. In the U.S., we’re generally not big joiners, i.e., we don’t sign up for all kinds of activities and extracurriculars, serve on committees, attend galas or train in groups for Ironman. We like outdoor activities, trying new restaurants, cooking, casual get-togethers with friends and family, and low-key entertainment. But that formula doesn’t work when you’re new to a country and eager to experience it all and make friends. So we’re joiners here. We signed up for a bunch of activities and, while some prove to be a waste of time and we’ve already quit, some are fun and interesting and have helped us meet more people and experience more in Mexico.

Chief getting thrown to the ground in Aikido class. This is what being a joiner looks like.

Whatever you do, don’t play it cool. “Cool” is for 9th grade when you don’t see anyone you know in the high school cafeteria on the first day of school and are terrified but don’t want to show it. Or when you’re 23 and think you have life all figured out. No, there is no room for cool anymore. Put yourself out there. Be okay with embarrassing yourself (because it’s inevitable anyway). Try to speak the language even when you mess up and the old lady at the grocery counter laughs at you. Sign up for something and embrace being a beginner. If you meet someone and have a connection, ask for their number. It’s all good. We’re all grown-ups here – humbled grownups – with very little to lose.

Scott trying to be as cool as our 8-year-old.


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