I’m willing to bet that, like me, you don’t have to reach too far into your memory to recall a time you stared down a middle school lunchroom situation. Whether you were thirteen or thirty-three or sixty-five, you’ve been in a set of circumstances that asked you to strike the balance of being a new person in an established group while doing your level best to not look like you’re 100% aware of that fact. It’s a hard place to be, yes. And if you’re a parent or have beloved children — big or small — in your life, it’s even harder to witness those precious kiddos going through the same thing.
When I think back to the times when my own children, military brats who’ve been the new kids more than once, struggled to break into a circle, I remember their own discouragement — and my maddening frustration.
I can tell you where I was driving when one child mentioned introducing himself to others in a new class only to be ignored.
I can tell you what dinner I stirred when another child returned home early from visiting a brand new youth group because the kids had laughed at her for moving too slowly in a game.
Of course, it’s always possible to catch a person or group on an off day, and we always encourage our kids to never give up over a single, less-than-stellar interaction. But when the new kid repeatedly gets up the gumption to introduce him or herself, to try to make their way into a new group, only to be met with a lackluster response? Well, it stirs up some feelings.
When I think back to my own school years, in particular my high school years, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember intentionally seeking out the new kids myself. I lived in the same town my whole life, and by and large, friends were always there. Since I had my people, I remained blind to those who didn’t.
It wasn’t till I married my US Air Force man and moved across the country to a state where I knew no one that I received my first taste of what it’s like to be on the outside in a more sharply defined way. Furthermore, watching my kids go through frequent school transitions removed that blindspot for good.
I talk with friends who can relate about watching our kids light up like megawatt bulbs when someone breaks open the circle to let them in. And how the opposite can be so dark and discouraging. While our kids have formed meaningful friendships in a variety of places and circumstances, there were times when they couldn’t because everyone in the group had their people — and the people weren’t interested in new people.
Of course, we all have limited bandwidth and can’t be good friends with everyone we meet. But with a new person here or there? We have more bandwidth than we may think. Jesus had His longtime friends, yes. But He always kept His eyes and heart open to welcome new people in as well. Perhaps the Lord is asking us to welcome someone new into our lives or be a bridge between a new person and someone else we know.
But for that to happen, we must accept this reality:
To do as Jesus did, we must be okay — and teach our kids to be okay — with stepping away from the circle, momentarily placing ourselves on the outside so we can reach someone else on the outside. Will it feel awkward? Oh yes. But like with anything, the more you practice it, the easier it gets to welcome others in. The more you practice it, the more you’ll find it’s worth the awkward.
Let’s keep encouraging our kids to persevere as they find their place and people. If that’s your child today, know I’m praying that God would put a local Jesus-loving friend on the path who sees your child as the gem he or she is. Remember that if Jesus had His friends, He desires our kids and the rest of us to have friends too. I know it’s painful to watch our children struggle to find their people within a particular setting. But in the struggle will come growth and maturity. With those good qualities, God will surely form our kids’ hearts to see those on the outside and be inclined to welcome them in as well.
And if our kids do have their place and people, let’s honestly evaluate if we can do better by teaching them to cast their nets wider. In the process, may we both mention and model the importance of stepping outside of our circles, offering the hand of friendship to someone new, and welcoming them in.
For more encouragement in your journey to belonging, check out Kristen’s book, Back Roads to Belonging: Unexpected Paths to Finding Your Place and Your People.