Out of all of the stages of motherhood so far, never have I felt the need for a support system more than during this season of raising tweens and teens. And I am incredibly grateful for a tribe of friends who are in the same stage because this is HARD!
Recently I met one of these amazing friends of mine for lunch and we were both unburdening ourselves as we shared some of the struggles our kids were experiencing, particularly in their friendships. More specifically, what our daughters were dealing with as they navigate the treacherous waters of middle school.
Our girls might be in different grades at different schools, but the challenges that they face are the same challenges girls are facing at every grade level at every school around the globe.
I could hear the hurt in my friend’s voice as she relayed a recent encounter her daughter had experienced. There had been some communication between friends about getting together at the state fair over the summer. Texts had gone back and forth but no firm plans were ever made. Later, she discovered that the girls had gone to the fair without her daughter being included. In fact, while attending the fair as a family, they ran into these girls there…together…having never bothered to let her daughter know that they were meeting up.
“I don’t think they were intentionally being mean”, said my friend. “I truly think that they just weren’t thinking and their moms probably didn’t even know that they had originally planned to include my daughter so they didn’t bother to make sure that she was invited. Kids at this age are so hyper focused on themselves that they tend to have blinders on and just don’t realize the impact of what they are doing.”
I completely empathized with her. Not only have I experienced this in my own life (as a child and as an adult), I’ve also witnessed as my daughter has been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior.
But, as we continued our conversation and processed through this tangled web of female friendships, one thing emerged that seemed to occur to both of us at the same time.
There is a huge difference between being unintentionally exclusive and being intentionally inclusive.
In other words, just because you aren’t being intentionally unkind doesn’t mean you are being intentionally kind.
You see, I think that somewhere along the line we’ve started making excuses. We make them for ourselves and we make them for our children.
We convince ourselves that as long as we (or anyone else) aren’t being outright mean that it’s pretty much the equivalent of being kind.
But, it isn’t.
Let’s say, for example, that there was a class bully. And one day that bully decided that they weren’t going to torment anyone. They might claim that day as a victory and pat themselves on the back for showing so much restraint. But, is that the same as them reaching out a hand to help someone up? Is that the same as the bully inviting the loner to sit at the table with them? Of course not. Simply being ambivalent, being neither here nor there, doesn’t equate to showing kindness.
Choosing to be kind requires more from us. It involves us getting out of our own heads for a moment in order to put ourselves in the shoes of another. Let’s face it, children (and many adults too!) aren’t all that great at this, particularly when they are at a stage where one of their biggest goals is acceptance and not rocking the boat.
Now, I know what question will come next because I’ve heard it before. “Does this mean we have to be best friends with everyone?” I’m not going to even bother to answer this because we all know that it’s a way to deflect from the heart of the issue. It’s not enough for us to say that as long as we, or our children, aren’t being outright hurtful/hateful that we don’t need to be called to a higher standard.
Because there is a whole lot of space between being ambivalent and being a best friend. Offering a smile, scooting over to make room at your table, choosing your words carefully, giving a helping hand, watching out for those on the fringe…these are all things that can be done without having to go buy matching BFF necklaces.
Recently I had the incredible opportunity to watch as my daughter put this into practice. I’m not going to lie, middle school has been rough for her. For example, a couple of months ago she was informed by a group of girls that they had taken a vote (a VOTE!) and decided that she wasn’t welcome to hang out with them anymore. She had struck up a new friendship with one of the girls in this group and the other girls just couldn’t seem to handle it. They literally marched up to her and told her that they had ‘voted’ her out. And the worst part was that her so-called friend didn’t stand up to these girls in her defense. This isn’t the first time she has been on the receiving end of this kind of hurtful behavior. Friendships she once thought were rock solid have changed practically overnight without so much as a look back. And the confusion and pain it’s caused has had us both in tears as we’ve processed and prayed about it together.
But, something truly beautiful has emerged from the ruins of these experiences. I’ve been witness to my daughter developing this incredible strength of character. As God has been healing her wounds, He has been reshaping her, molding her into the girl He wants her to be. A girl who discovered what it looks like to stand up for yourself while also being mindful of that fact that we are called to forgive and offer the same grace to others that is offered to us through Jesus Christ. I like to say that she has the welcome mat out in front of her heart but she isn’t going to let you muddy it up too much. She continues to stay true to herself even when she knows that means she won’t always ‘fit in’.
And, the other day, I watched as she was intentionally inclusive to someone who has actually been intentionally exclusive towards her. I witnessed her very purposefully reaching out to make sure that they felt included. I saw her showing kindness in a way that may have seemed so small it was barely recognizable to those around us, but it was incredibly powerful to me as her mother. She didn’t have to do this. I honestly wouldn’t have blamed her if she didn’t because I know how deep the pain has been over this intentional exclusion. Would it have fallen into the category of being mean or intentionally unkind if my daughter had walked on by and not reached out to include this girl? No. She wouldn’t have been knowingly trying to hurt someone. But would it have fallen into the category of being intentionally kind and inclusive? Again, no. If she hadn’t reached out, hadn’t risen above, she would have just stayed in that vast space between being unkind and being kind.
She would have stayed in that place that many middle schoolers (and people of all ages!) find so comfortable because they can always claim that they weren’t being outright unkind while never having to actually do anything that would require them to extend a helping hand to others.
What I loved the most about this is that my daughter knew that this small, kind gesture wasn’t going to instantly repair the friendship. She knew that they weren’t going to have a sleepover the next night or coordinate their outfits for school. She just knew that, in that moment, she didn’t want this girl to feel excluded. She was being intentionally kind.
And as we lay in her bed that night (she likes to talk with me or my husband before she falls asleep), I told her that I saw what she had done and affirmed her choice before praying over her. As I left her room, I reminded her that it’s never going to be the easiest way to do this life. But, it’s also never going to leave you with a life filled with regrets.
Just think what might happen if we all took this to heart. If we gave up passivity for proactivity. If we approached each day, each interaction with intentionality and a desire to leave people feeling better for having been around us.
I can imagine schools, churches and communities where the investment we pour into others, whether it’s one drop or a bucket full, overflows in such a way that it so deeply reflects the character and heart of God that they will be drawn to Him through us.
I pray it will be so.