When my oldest son first started pre-kindergarten he rode a bus from 6:30 am until about 7:40 when he was dropped off at school. During his over an hour bus drive he had two transfers. That means that my little, just turned, 4 year old got on a bus, got off looked for a new bus number, got on that one, switched again, and finally made it to school to join his class. All of that was done as the only pre-k kid on the bus. I am certain the bus drivers pointed him in the right direction but for the most part he was doing it independently. He has always been very observant and has a better memory than I do (he still remembers the bus numbers he had to look for) so I was never worried about his ability to get to school safely.
He was excited about the bus ride and for the first month or more would come home with so many stories about what kids did and all about the conversations he’d have with the driver. One day, when I picked him up from day care and asked how the day went, he just started sobbing. These weren’t tears that kids start when they aren’t getting what they want or the kind of crying that comes from frustration or really anything I’d seen from a child. It was the kind of gut wrenching sobbing you see from someone who has just had their first heartbreak. I would have expected it in high school when he loses his first love, but not in pre-k. I asked him repeatedly what was wrong and when he caught his breath he explained that he sits in the first seat on the bus and every day he asks every single kid that gets on the bus to sit with him. Every single kid says no and walks passed. He cried the whole way home while I tried to choke down my own tears and comfort him from the front seat of my truck.
Once we were home I held him in my lap and asked more and more questions. It started out painful for him to explain but as he continued talking about it seemed to ease his mind. After I understood how lonely and invisible he felt I wanted to fix it. The problem was, there was no problem to fix. I didn’t want my big strong independent little man to be lonely for sure. The loneliness, though, was only a symptom of his learning how to make friends. That pain teaches you how to engage with the other kids and build relationships. (These are not exactly comforting concepts to a 4 year old.)
I did not fix this for him. Not because I couldn’t but because I chose not to. I could have reached out to parents and asked them to have their kids sit with my son. I could have rearranged my schedule to drop him off at school. I could have called the school or bus company and said that they couldn’t make him sit in front if the kids he knew were in the back. He needed to work through this on his own and learn from it. So I didn’t swoop in and make it all go away. Instead, I gave him some tools to navigate it himself.
- I explained honestly why kids don’t want to sit with him. There was kindness but no sugar coating. All of the kids are older and already have friends in their own grades that they are excited to hang out with. They aren’t being mean. I explained that as he gets to know them more more of them will want to sit with him sometimes but they will still say no sometimes because they want to be with kids their own age. It will be harder for the youngest guy around to make his way into the circle but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen with time.
- Keep talking to the driver because he’ll be your buddy on the bus. If there are other kids to be friends with, great. If you’re feeling super lonely and you don’t know who to talk to though, the driver will have your back. Having a trusted adult that would remain consistent (or three that would remain consistent with all of the bus changes) was a good back up to my kid. I am sure the driver thought it was sweet how many stories and questions the little guy had. I am also sure that it got overwhelming and annoying some days. From my son’s perspective though it was someone who would always be close by to talk to.
- My husband and I suggested different counting games. We would ask for reports on how many deer or turkeys he saw in which fields, how many dirt roads they drove on, and a host of other things. This was fun because it did two things. It helped distract him while he was on the bus because he had a job (turkey scouting for Daddy is a job he took very seriously) it also helped him feel connected to us when we weren’t there. He knew that he could share his reports as soon as he got home and that was exciting for him.
- We also urged him to keep trying to talk to the kids. Sure you could ask people to sit with you but you could also just join in conversation with those sitting in the seats near you too. Developing the friendships first will make it more likely that they want to make the commitment to sitting with you for the hour you’re all on the bus.
That all may be very interesting for someone who also has a small child on a long bus ride who is feeling very lonely but you know I’m going to say it applies everywhere else too right? There will be painful situations that aren’t exactly problems to be fixed all through life. Whether you’re four and learning to make friends, in your first job learning the value of a dollar, in your career learning about office politics, or with your spouse learning how to cultivate the strongest relationship, learning the tools to navigate it will be more beneficial than having someone “fix” it.
To put it in more grown up terms, the tools I gave my little guy were:
- Provide honesty and clarity. When you’re going through something painful it can be difficult to see objectively what is happening. You get swept up in how you feel about it and forget to use logic around why it’s happening. Take a step outside of the situation and look at it from another’s perspective. Be realistic in the assessment too. At the end of the day, and right or wrong, the situation might not get better (some kids might not want to sit with you) and you need to decide if you’re ok with that and how what your steps are to change if not. If you’re too close or it is too hard to look at the situation objectively, confide in someone else to give that clear reflection.
- Find and maintain the allies you have. There is someone who has your back and who will help be a safety net for you. They may not “fix” anything but they can be an ear to listen to what you’re going through, give you suggestions on how to work through what is going on, or just help be a distraction in that difficult situation. This in and of itself can be a way of “fixing” things sometimes if finding an ally looks more like networking than chatting with the driver who is about 50 years your senior.
- Stay connected with what is consistent. Keep in mind that no matter how big of change you’re going through or how difficult of a season in life, not every part of it has changed. You can hold firmly to those things that are familiar even when you’re in the midst of something that isn’t. For my little guy it was staying connected to his parents, and honestly, for many people it may be just that. What values did they teach you that you can bring into this new career? Can you still call them every Sunday like you have for years? Maybe staying connected to the familiar means something a little more tactical for you, for example you took a promotion or transfer from your prior job. What skills did you do well that you can bring to this new venture? Maybe you’re going through a relationship change. What traditions with family or friends can you maintain through this time?
- Get out of your comfort zone. We are only clinging to the edge of the safety blanket for #3, you still need to forge ahead. Take the course, change the job, start the relationship, retire at 40, do the thing, whatever it is. Sometimes it won’t look exactly like you thought. Sometimes you can’t go back for your masters but you can sign up for the first online course. Maybe you can’t retire in the traditional sense at 40 but you can have profound second act. If you don’t know how to start, get creative. You know the goal and can find a way to make it happen. If you’re really stuck, do some research and start again at #1.