Up until recently I had always been very happy that my kids enjoy playing together- not really needing anyone else with whom to play.
This doesn't mean that I did not notice how Shakeel lights up when he's around boys his own age and turns into a raving lunatic- punching, kicking, roaring and growling. It's as if he is on some kind of demented high.
It is also really annoying to see how he tries to turn his little sisters into little boys. He'd become irritated when they wanted to do anything girly, so most often they end up playing warrior/fighting/ninja games or run-from-the-roaring growling dinosaur/lion/whatever carnivore he feels like being on that day.
Although he had a best friend in Grade 4, he's pretty much been without one since that boy left for another school. Since then he's been bouncing between cliques; never really belonging to any one. I was aware that it was bothering him- he always said that when the class was asked to partner into groups of two, nobody would choose him- not because they didn't like him, but because each had his/her own special buddy.
This bothered me, but not long enough to do something about it, since he'd come home and play with his sisters quite happily. I'd convince myself that he would be okay and that it was better if he just played with his sisters, as it meant fewer negative outside influences from hormonal inquisitive pre-teen boys.
But then I read this article and was overcome with guilt and sadness. My son was being deprived of so much by not having a best friend- it was not merely a nice-to-have (as I had assumed), but a very essential part of his healthy development.
In a nutshell- according to the article research has shown boys to be as relationship-oriented as girls are. Boys too need a special friend with whom to share secrets and discuss personal issues. Close relationships, according to this article, are associated with "better emotional and physical health as well as academic engagement and achievement". In addition, "adolescents without close friendships are at risk for depression, suicide, dropping out of school, early pregnancy, drug use, and gang membership".
Fortunately two of his friends, Caleb and Sipho (who, in turn, are best friends) invited him to spend the day with them soon after I'd acquired this illuminating bit of information. As uncomfortable as it was for me- since I hate my kids spending, what I consider to be family time, away from us- I forced myself to change my mindset. I had always been focused on developing Shakeel academically to the detriment of other areas of his life.
This misguided approach of mine is most likely also the reason he handles stress so badly. His relative isolation means that he does not have anyone with whom to share his concerns, or to provide him with the perspective of a fellow 12-year old. If he'd had that, he would have realised that the world does not end if you do not obtain among the top marks in your class or if you are not chosen as class monitor.
So at this moment my son is playing outside in the plastic pool with Caleb and Sipho, who'd both spent the night last night. Even this sleepover had been the source of so much stress for Shakeel. What if they did not enjoy themselves?he'd wondered. What if they did not enjoy playing in the plastic pool, since they were accustomed to swimming in Caleb's massive 'real' pool?
But he needn't have worried. The excited shrieks and laughter were more than enough evidence of the wonderful time they were having.
The idea had been to pitch a tent and camp out in the yard, but I think none of them had actually had the guts to go through with that plan. So the tent was pitched in the living room, with Sipho choosing to sleep in there; Shakeel dragged a mattress from the room for himself, while Caleb lay sprawled on a very comfy sofa.
They spent the earlier part of the evening watching stand-up comedian Trevor Noah and then fell asleep in front of the television.
This morning they accompanied my kids to their karate classes, after which they spent the rest of the day hopping in and out of the pool. By early afternoon though they were clearly becoming worried that their time together was running out, so they asked if they could sleep over again tonight.
Despite the fact that we were attending a prayer gathering tonight (and neither of them are Muslim), they still were prepared to sit through the prayer meeting in order to be able to sleep over afterward. Since the gathering was held to mark the death of my father-in-law a year ago, it was held at my mother-in-law's place.
The two boys dutifully and respectfully sat through the prayers after which they stuffed themselves and went to play soccer in the road with my kids' cousins.
They are now done swimming and are lying in bed chatting away happily. Earlier I overheard their plans to sit with some Maths worksheets (which Shakeel is expected to do); and to choreograph a dance. It sounds as if they have a full schedule planned for tomorrow.
I am feeling so contented right now. I love how happy these friends are making my son. I am also really pleased that they seem to be having such a wonderful time and have fitted into the family so comfortably. Both boys went over to give my mother-in-law a kiss and hug before we left which I thought was rather sweet.
I hope that this year Shakeel will forge firm friendships which will provide him with the necessary support he needs- now and in the future. My hope is also that him having carefree (though not careless and irresponsible) friends will assist him to have a balanced approach to his life; and that him having friends with whom he can communicate and share his feelings and thoughts, will help him to manage his stress in a positive healthy way.
Mostly, I just want him to be happy- to create memories upon which he can look fondly in future, with the knowledge and satisfaction that his childhood had been a happy one.