Left Behind

What happened when my son’s best friend moved away.

Also in Slate, Emily Bazelon writes about what it’s like for the kids who move away.

When my husband and I opted to build a home in a new development three years ago, we had control over the floor plan, the carpets, the countertops, even the wall color (tan or beige). But one thing was out of our control, and it was a biggie: With only one other house completed on our street, we couldn’t glean any clues about the neighbors. There were no minivans, swing sets, or yards littered with toys—just empty lots. Would our new ‘hood be full of kids, and, if so, would they be the right age to play with our 2-year-old son?

We lucked out. Within a few months, we had nine kids between the ages of 2 and 7 on our little street. (A streetwide baby boom later raised that number to an even dozen.) Everybody had a playmate or two their own age, and the cul-de-sac was often filled with kids on bikes and trikes. We socialized with our new neighbors and had impromptu cookouts. But we were most excited about the family who moved in next door—like us, they were from out of state, and they had a daughter a few months younger than our son. We bonded over our outsider status, getting lost on unfamiliar streets, and poking fun at the local delicacy, Skyline chili. But what really brought us together was that our Brandon and their Sammy became fast friends.

At 2, Brandon was just moving out of “independent” play and starting to understand the give-and-take of friendship. And I liked that he had a little girl for a playmate. Brandon’s interactions with her were very different from those when he played with his cousins, all boys. The two would be laughing one minute, then crying about not wanting to share the next. As they turned 3 and 4, they went from being good buddies to being inseparable. They’d stay up late on the weekend watching movies, sneaking into the pantry to find snacks and falling asleep on opposite ends of the couch. And they were remarkably protective of each other—if a sibling or another friend was mean to one of them, the other would leap to the defense.

We thought it was cute when they told us they were married, at least until I went for my parent-teacher conference at preschool, and the teacher said she couldn’t give Brandon the highest mark for playing well with others because there was one student he fought with constantly. “Who?” I asked, extremely concerned.

“Samantha,” the teacher replied. “I don’t know what it is, but they really act like a married couple.” She explained they couldn’t be separated. If one did need some time alone, the other would melt down, feelings hurt.

Alas, it was not a marriage meant to last. Samantha’s dad accepted a job in another state, eight hours away. He moved in January, and the rest of the family stayed to finish out the school year. We had plenty of time to get used to the idea before we had to tell Brandon, but it was one of our first big challenges as parents.

What concerned me, beyond the thought of breaking the news to him, was that having a friend move away might be hard on him in different ways than if we were the ones moving. Sammy had new discoveries to look forward to—a new house, new friends, more time with her grandparents, who lived nearby. Brandon’s life would be the same, except for a gaping hole.

We decided to wait until about a month before the move to talk with Brandon, since even that time span is an eternity to a 4-year-old. We pulled out a map, showed him where we lived and where Sammy would be moving, and explained that we’d try to visit. I’d been so nervous about telling him that when I did, my voice cracked a little and I almost cried. He looked at me sternly and said, “Mommy don’t talk like that!” I’m still not sure if he was mad or sad. But the news took some time to sink in. And once it did, he had the perfect solution: “Mommy, can we move, too?” Even after several long conversations about how we had moved to Cincinnati so that we could be near his grandparents and cousins, he didn’t quite get it. One day I showed him the picture of Sammy’s new house from the online real estate listing, and he asked, “Where’s the lot for us to build our house next door?”

We answered his questions the best we could—over and over—and we listened and gave him lots of hugs when he was sad. And we let him hang out with Sammy as much as we could, even indulging them with sleepovers.

And when the big moving day came, it was rather anticlimactic. We watched as our friends packed a few last things in the car, snapped some pictures, the kids hugged, and that was that. We were at my parents’ house for dinner that evening when my cell phone beeped. Our neighbor had sent us a picture of Sammy with the text line, “Miss You!” I snapped my own picture and responded.

And it quickly hit me that kids today, even kids as young as 4 or 5, don’t have to be traumatized by a move, because it’s so much easier to stay in touch. When I was young and one of my friends moved across the country, we exchanged a few letters but rather quickly lost contact with each other. But between e-mail, cell phones (no costly long-distance bills!), and even Webcams (a trick we haven’t tried yet), kids can maintain a semblance of friendship even over vast miles.

Brandon has adjusted well. On our way home from our summer vacation, we made a minor detour so that we could visit our former neighbors. Brandon was giddy at the surprise, and he and Sammy picked up right where they had left off. Back in Cincinnati, Brandon is still eager to have a best bud, though, and he’s latched on to the little boy across the street who’s the same age. And now that preschool has started, he comes home with stories about his classmates.

When we as parents are trying to impart life’s lessons to kids—in this case, how to deal with losing a friend—I think it’s important that we are open to the lessons we can be learning ourselves. Brandon soldiered on with his happy childhood, even though it was a little duller perhaps, and I got to learn that children can be stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for.