My 6-year-old daughter has been complaining about a girl at school. She plays with her often, but lately, she has been frustrated with the way she cuts her off when she’s talking and dismisses her need for “space.” I’ve tried to give her tools to communicate her feelings, but the other night, as she was expressing the same concerns once again, I told her: “You know, you don’t have to be her friend.”
She went silent.
It’s such a simple fact, right? That in this short life, we don’t have to give our limited time and emotional energy to those who deplete us. And yet it’s something that I myself have only really learned in the past five years.
I want to teach my daughter that—despite all the “best friends forever” bracelets she keeps in her Caboodle—friendship is malleable. With any healthy relationship, you must keep checking in—not just with each other, but also yourself. But how do you explain this to a kid? Tina Roth-Eisenberg, founder of the popular design blog Swissmiss, asks her daughter this question. It’s one that I love. She tells Extraordinary Routines:
I’m really trying to make my kids aware of how people make you feel. After play dates I often ask my daughter, ‘How do you feel right now? Do you feel filled up, or do you feel empty?’ In the beginning she’d be like, ‘Mum, what are you asking me?’ But now she will come to me and say, ‘Mum I don’t feel filled up right now.’ It’s something that you really need to teach children, or at least it’s something that I wish I learnt earlier in life because I was in some really unhealthy friendships because I felt bad for someone or was feeling manipulated into friendship. I’m trying to have really good people in my life: I know I fill them up and they fill me up and we are happy for each other’s successes.
(I know that as an adult, the answer to this question can be jarring. Maybe that childhood friend, the one who you spent every summer with in high school, the one whose family took you in when things were rough at home ... no longer fills you up. That’s okay. You can be kind to them and love them from afar. And maybe there’s a woman in your neighborhood that you hardly know but every time you see her, you have a conversation that energizes you. It’s scary thing to ask if she wants to grab coffee sometime, but having her as a friend might just be everything.)
With young kids, you can kind of tell when they’re filled up—they’re giggly and themselves. But with older kids and teens, it’s harder. That’s why this question is even more important for them. “Do you feel filled up, or do you feel empty?” Ask them enough times, and they’ll start asking it themselves, creating a circle that is full of people who lift them higher.