For every experience in childhood, there seems to be a children's story that explores it. Scholastic author and editor Grace Maccarone has written many of them. From surviving chicken pox to saving soccer games, her books — including The Lunch Box Surprise, and It's Graduation Day — focus on and celebrate children's friendships. As your child returns to or starts school for the first time this fall, she'll experience the wonder of making new friends — and growing closer to the ones she's already made. Using her perspective as a parent and storyteller, Maccarone shares her thoughts on how children begin friendships, how those friendships deepen as they get older, and how to help your child to be a good friend.
P&C: You write books about children's friendships, amongst other things. Where do you find inspiration for the stories?
Grace Maccarone: Mostly, I write what I observe. I have written about friends I had as a child. I have written about my daughter and her friends. And I have written about my adult friends as children. I find inspiration from life experiences, books, and conversations.
When I come upon a subject that is interesting to me, I mull it over. For example, when I was writing The Haunting of Grade Three, I wrote about how kids with different personalities and different skills could work together to solve a problem. The problem they solved was this: Was the school really haunted or was there a reasonable explanation to the mysterious occurrences at the Blackwell school? It was an idea I have always enjoyed mulling over. In the publishing company where I work at my day job, for example, there are gregarious sales people and publicists, creative artists and writers, fastidious people in manufacturing and finance, and editorial people who endeavor to please all of the above. When we’re at our best, we cooperate and accomplish great things.
When I wrote The Lunch Box Surprise, I explored this idea of cooperation in a much simpler way, in a way that 5 and 6 year olds can understand. In that book, a boy named Sam opens his lunchbox and discovers that Mom has forgotten to give him lunch. This idea came from an actual experience. One day, when my daughter was in first grade, I forgot to give her lunch. I made it, put it into the refrigerator, but during the flurry of activity that went on as we left the house, I forgot to give it to her. What really happened was that the teacher gave her some peanut butter on graham crackers and an extra milk left over from snack time. But that wasn't the story I wanted to explore. I wanted to write about how other people can help us when we are in need of help. In The Lunch Box Surprise, each of Sam’s friends gives him a bit of his or her lunch. He gets some chicken, some peas, etc., and he ends up with the best lunch he’s ever had. Sam's friends came through for him.
P&C: What are some of your favorite children's stories about friendship?
Maccarone: One of my favorite stories about friendship is a picture book called May I Bring a Friend?, written by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and illustrated by Beni Montresor. It received the Caldecott Medal in 1965. In this story, the protagonist, who is invited to have tea with the Queen and King, asks if he may bring a friend. Their response is in the affirmative. “My dear, my dear, any friend of our friend is welcome here!” This pattern is repeated during the course of a week. Each day the boy is invited and he asks to bring a friend, which he does. I love the spirit of inclusion, the expansiveness and good will, and the suggestion that every encounter with a new friend will be an exciting adventure.
Other favorite friendship stories are a Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White, and A Bug, a Boy, and a Bear, by David McPhail, Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne, Ruby the Copycat, by Peggy Rathmann, and Chester’s Way and Jessica, both by Kevin Henkes.
P&C: Friendship between very young toddlers, 3s and 4s, and between 5 and 6 year old children are different. How do children's friendships change as they get older?
Maccarone: As I'm not an expert in child behavior, this is difficult for me to answer. I can share some observations, though. From the time my daughter was 20 months old, she attended a preschool where she had three friends: Tanya, Arielle, and Caitlin. When they first met, they had very little language. But they always smiled when the saw each other in the morning. They seemed to be very interested in each other, and seemed to make up games to play with each other. For example, one day, Tanya wore a black jumpsuit with gold lamé wings and ornaments. My daughter stared and chattered and pointed at the gold wings. She had a big grin on her face. Tanya chattered and smiled back. Arielle was very athletic. She loved to run up and down the hall and around the circumference of the playroom. Jordan, Tanya, and Caitlin loved to chase her. On nice days, after school, Jordan and I and Caitlin and her dad would go to the park. Sometimes the girls played together. Sometimes they went their separate ways. But then the activity of one would attract the other and they would reunite. For example, Jordan might be in the sandbox and Caitlin on the slide and Jordan would look up to see Caitlin on the slide and want to try it, too.
Friendships between 5 and 6 year olds are easier to understand because they are more like adult friendships. Like adults, they converse, play games, have conflicts, make up. I think adults talk more, though. I remember one day when Jordan, then 5, and I were at her friend’s house, Jordan was playing with her friend and I was talking to the friend's mother. All of a sudden, the friend stopped playing and said to her mom and me, "You haven't stopped talking. What do you talk about?"
P&C: What new skills do children acquire as they grow older that enable them to form friendships?
Maccarone: Language acquisition, self-control, the ability to empathize, the ability to compromise . . .
P&C: Is there anything parents can do to help their children form strong friendships?
Maccarone: I think that parents need to pay attention to conflicts that come up during play dates and, when necessary, intervene in a friendly, helpful way.
Parents need to find opportunities to talk to their children about friendships and all kinds of social interactions. This can be very difficult. As a parent who has always worked outside of my home, most of my daughter's social interactions took place out of my sight. But from the time she was a preschooler, we played a game. I would say, "Tell me three great things about your day." And she would tell me three great things, or sometimes she would tell me some great things and some not-so-great things. One day she when she was in kindergarten or 1st grade, she told me how a girl named Jasmine told my daughter that she could use the slide only if Jordan took a lunch box that belonged to a third girl, Janine, and hid it. Janine was Jordan’s very good friend, but my daughter allowed herself to be manipulated by Jasmine and took Janine’s lunchbox. Jasmine still wouldn’t let Jordan use the slide. This situation provided a great opportunity for me to talk to my daughter about friendship and loyalty. I am happy to say that 12 years later, Jordan and Janine remain best of friends.
P&C: Empathy is an important emotion for young children to grasp in order to make friends. What are some ways to teach children how to appreciate others feelings?
Maccarone: I think that one of the best ways to teach children how to appreciate others' feelings is by being considerate of the child's feelings. Sometimes that's hard. On occasion, I've caught myself saying things to people that have been embarrassing to my daughter. Or I've been short with her, not because of anything she's done, but because of my own stresses or insecurities.
I've found that that books, TV shows, and life have provided many teachable moments, when I could ask my daughter, "How do you think that person felt? How would you feel if that happened to you? This is how I would feel if that happened to me."
P&C: How can parents handle arguments between their children and their friends?
Maccarone: With attention, creativity, self-control, and compassion. When my daughter and a friend would argue over a toy, I would give each girl the same specified amount of time with that toy — one minute, three minutes, or five minutes — and I would set the alarm on my watch. The kids seemed to love that. They appreciated the fairness of it. And they liked hearing the timer go off. Sometimes they would pretend to argue over a toy just so I would use my timer!
But all situations are different. One day, my daughter had a play date with a friend at my house. The girls, both very distraught, came to me because they were having an argument. The friend wanted to wear my daughter’s bunny slippers, but my daughter did not want her to. The friend argued that she was the guest, so Jordan should accommodate her. If the girls had been arguing over a toy, I would have gone to the timer. But I felt that slippers were more personal. So I said something that sounded silly to them. I said, "I agree that we should try to accommodate our guests, but slippers are personal. Can you imagine if I went to your house and asked your mom if I could try on her underwear?" The girls thought that idea was so funny they forgot about the slippers and found other things to play with.