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My son is being rejected by his so-called friend

The question

My 10-year-old son has a "friend" from school. For the last three years, birthday invitations to this friend are only RSVP'd, negatively, the day before the party, and my son's phone calls to this boy to arrange play times are never returned. My son's other friends have had "play dates" with this boy, who apparently has restrictions on the frequency of play dates. After the latest letdown, when my son spent most of a beautiful weekend indoors waiting for a returned call, I told him, as I have in the past, there seem to be no play times forthcoming. It pains me to see my son moping over some kid who, for whatever reason, has demonstrated no interest in seeing him outside of school. Should I keep watching my son try with this kid, or lay down the hammer and tell him he is not allowed to call this boy any more?

The answer

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Oh, man, momma bear, I feel your pain, way down deep.

This letter was signed "vicariously sad mom," but to me this kind of parental distress/sadness is, if anything, more visceral than vicarious: one of the many, many things that's more painful when it happens to your kid than when it happens to you.

Is there any pang sharper than unreciprocated affection for another human being? It's awful enough when it happens to you. When it happens to one of your kids, it's like a shiv twisting around right in the old ticker.

I remember when my oldest son turned 12. He'd just started Grade 7 at a new school across town. He invited a couple of kids from his old neighbourhood grade school and some from his new middle school to his birthday party

We festooned the house with ribbons, hung balloons, made a cake and bought a gross of cans of Silly String. (Hey, there's still so much kid in them, even at that age.)

But his birthday's at the end of September, so the kids he invited from his new school were basically strangers – or at least very fresh acquaintances. And his grade-school friends were scattered to the four corners of the city.

It was also the first birthday that his mother and I weren't furiously working the phones in the background, confirming attendees.

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Three kids showed up from the neighbourhood, and it was only three because one of them dragged along his little brother. Then my wife and I had to watch in agony as the four of them hid in the front room with their cans of Silly String, waiting to pounce on the rest of the guests – who never arrived.

He made the best of it, poor kid, but later, sitting on the stairs (always a great spot to get your crying done), he was in tears, asking his mother why no one came to his party.

She kept it together, barely, on the stairs, but later bawled like a baby – complete with heart-wrenching sobs and mucho mucous – out of motherly empathy and compassion for his pain and shame.

Me, I wanted to tell him that pain and shame were only a temporary, passing aspect of the human condition, one that would clear up like acne by the time he reached adulthood.

But I didn't want to lie.

At various times in their lives, I've had to watch each of my three boys pursue friends who, for whatever reason, would not return their calls, reciprocate birthday invitations, etc. And it's a terrible, helpless feeling.

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But I'm afraid there's not really too much you can do about it. Certainly I don't think "laying the hammer down" and insisting he stop calling the other kid is much of a solution. He'd just wind up focusing his resentment on you.

If you really want to become invested, you might attempt to ameliorate the situation by making friendly overtures toward the parents of Little Lord Too-Good-For-Your-Kid.

Often it's the parents pulling the strings at that age. And the head-scratch-inducing information that the kid goes on play dates all the time, but is "restricted" vis-à-vis your kid, hints that this might be the case here.

Maybe, if you get to know the parents, after enough chardonnay and flattery they'll get over whatever reservations they might have.

But really, the scenario you describe is the type that's best healed by time. All three of my kids seem to have stable social circles right now, touch wood. Nick, who turns 15 next week, went on to find a great group of friends at that very middle school.

I'm sure your kid, too, will find the friends who are right for him, in time. Good, loyal friends who not only return his calls, but call him first.

In the meantime, he (and, "vicariously," you) may have to endure some rejection.

Cheer up. It could be worse. Wait till he gets older, falls in love and has his heart broken.

Then the two of you are going to feel some real pain.

David Eddie is an author and the co-creator of the TV series The Yard , airing on HBO Canada.

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