At the start of every new school year, we scurry around trying to make sure that our children are prepared for school.
New school clothes? Check.
School supplies? Check.
School physicals and immunizations? Check.
Our family’s checklist also involves a list of conversations that my husband and I need to make sure we have with our children before school starts. Some of these relate to things like revisiting our expectations for our children for when they’re at school and their routines while at home. Older children might need refreshers on how to handle peer pressure issues or delicate puberty-related scenarios.
One thing I always try to remind my children at the beginning of the school year, though, is to seek out the new kids. Look for the faces you haven’t seen before, and genuinely offer your kindness, your help, and your friendship.
I graduated from high school with the same group of kids that were in my kindergarten class. Sure, other kids moved in and out of town over the years, but I was never the new kid. In general, the experiences of the “new kids” were just never really on my radar.
As a military spouse, however, I have been the new kid in town more often than most people ever will in a lifetime, and I have discovered that the welcome wagon is rolled out very differently in different communities … or sometimes not really at all. My family has spent months, even years, living near neighbors whose names we never knew. We once lived in a community where it was common knowledge that local parents instructed their children not to make friends with the military kids because those parents thought that the inevitable goodbyes would be too hard on their own children year after year. In another part of the country, we learned that the general social attitude was encapsulated by the phrase, “We’re friendly, but we don’t really want to be your friend.” Unfortunately, we found that to be pretty accurate.
I get it. People are busy. People already have their established social circles and aren’t particularly interested in expanding them to include people who may move on in a few years. Making new friends can be exhaustingly similar to dating, and its especially tricky right now during a pandemic.
But I implore you: do it anyway.
BE THE WELCOME WAGON.
It’s good for everyone.
This isn’t just a conversation to have with your school-aged children. Practice what your preach. Pensacola is a military town. People move here every day, many of whom know no one for miles around on the day they pull into town. Right now, with social distancing measures in place, it’s harder than ever for new families to meet people. If you notice a moving truck in your neighborhood, go and introduce yourself!
A smile and a wave are kind and appreciated, but follow-up your first interactions with strategies that will help you make meaningful connections.
Exchange Contact Information
I will never forget the first time I had just moved to a new place and had to fill out emergency contact information in order to enroll my son in preschool. I honestly had no one to list. That is a terrible, lonely feeling. It is also an awkward conversation to have with a stranger you’ve just met! Make the offer. Pull out your phone and offer your contact information to your new neighbors, co-workers, or that mom that you met at the playground. Connect with them on social media.
Be a Source of Local Information
Let the “new kids” know that you’re available to answer any questions they may have about Pensacola from where to order the best takeout to where to get a great haircut. If you want to be really helpful, give them the contact information for you favorite babysitter. All of that takes time and effort for those new in town to figure out on their own. You can take so much off of their plates just by offering up details on the local area.
Offer to Make Connections and Introductions
Do your new neighbors have kids the same age as someone else you know? Do you have a friend who shares an interest with them? Offer to link them up! Making connections for those new to the area can be immensely helpful and a great community builder.
Spend Time on Your Front Porch or in Your Front Yard
Backyards provide us with peace and privacy, but front yards build community. Talk to your neighbors as they’re out walking their dogs or helping their children learn to ride their bikes. Ask questions. Get to know people. And while you’re at it …
Host an Impromptu Driveway Happy Hour
All you need is a cooler full of drinks and a few lawn chairs. In fact, in these times of Covid-19, you don’t even need that! Casually invite people to grab their own lawn chair and a beer (or soda or water) and join you. This has to be the simplest way to entertain. You don’t even need to clean your house or cook a meal. Just ask your new neighbors if they’d like to hang out in your driveway for a bit while your kids play outside. You can always order a pizza if your happy hour runs longer. In fact, if your new neighbors are still unpacking, they might very much appreciate the pizza! So many meaningful connections can be made in that short period of time just by having real, in-person conversation and getting to know one another.
You wouldn’t go on a great first date and then never contact that person again (at least, I hope you’re not that person). Send a text. Check in. Repeat the strategies above as needed. Who doesn’t need more driveway happy hours in their life?
When we talk to our kids about seeking out the “new kids” at school, we try to remind them that not everyone has to be your best friend. The same adage holds true for adults. Not every new neighbor is going to be interested in building a deep friendship. Not every connection you make is meant to last a lifetime or even last at all. That’s not really the point. The idea is to put yourself out there in the interest of better connecting your community. Don’t let the fact that it might not turn out to be a close friendship stop you from simply reaching out. You or your children just may wind up being exactly what the “new kids” in your community need right now. And who knows? They just may wind up being exactly what you didn’t realize you needed right now, too.