Yesterday, at a playground in Washington Heights, where we had driven for an obscure Mother’s Day lunch, I looked up to find my daughter walking towards me. Kina was holding hands with a little girl she could only have met two minutes earlier, and she wanted to introduce us. Kina and Zoe discovered their shared interest in running while chasing each other around the playset, and they had become very dear friends, rolling down the hill and playing hide and seek as if they had known each other for days. In light of the seriousness of their friendship, it seemed only right for Kina to introduce Zoe to her parents, and I approved of the match.
Laurea and I have noticed how much more readily Kina befriends strange kids on playgrounds in the last month. For a long time, she was the most solitary kid in a crowd, content to amuse herself by pretending to be three Octonauts at the same time and leaping from the ends of slides. As a long-time solitary kid in a crowd, I didn’t find this troubling, but I have often wondered what might activate the social genes that she inherited from her mother. Lately, we’ve watched that evolution at work, as Kina hunts out willing playmates on strange playgrounds. As she develops her sense of tribe, she seems drawn to three archetypes: The Tall Boy, The Adoring Two-Year-Old, and The Girl Who Looks Like Her.
Zoe is a Girl Who Looks Like Her, though she is technically five. They wear similar clothes and share a gentle demeanor that belies mischievous intent. I watched as they ensnared an Adoring Two-Year-Old while running around the perimeter of the playground, both tending to the toddler carefully after she fell. They both shared space and tolerated distance well. Her mom was pretty chill, and if we lived anywhere near Washington Heights, we would have done the thing where you ask another kid’s parents for their email address, triggering a series of playdates and birthday parties and plans to send the kids to the same school. Alas, we do not live near Washington Heights, and after twenty minutes, Zoe and her mom said goodbye before leaving to have lunch. Kina gave her a hug and got slightly glum as they closed the gate. The flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. It was a tight match; Kina knows how to pick ‘em.
Maybe all kids know how to pick ‘em, and we’re just born with an eye for the people who make us happy. Maybe we learn to doubt that instinct over time, forgoing our true friends for more socially profitable relationships. Maybe I shouldn’t make such far-reaching generalizations about friendship based on a twenty-minute playground affair. Maybe we should get out more.
It does seem like kids are born to love each other (when they’re not stealing each others’ swings), and it’s refreshing to see that in action on the playground—the most important continuously operating social laboratory in our lives. We love her so much, and it’s validating to see her sharing that love with other kids, even when she never learns their names. Many quick companions have made their mark on Kina, and they’re all invited to her birthday party in our hearts—because we do not have their parents’ emails. Zoe, of course, was special and named and gone after just twenty minutes, and she deserves the extra callout, just in case.