One of the most appealing things about living, and raising our son, in Brooklyn is the diversity. Our neighborhood is a mix of so many different cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Walking around you hear different languages and various calls to prayer. You see traditional dress from a number of countries and religions, and smell ingredients cooking that you may or may not be able to identify. There are Polish, Turkish, Bangladeshi, and Chinese markets, just to name a few. It’s almost always interesting and exciting, but it’s not without its challenges as we have come to find out.
When our son entered kindergarten in the local public school, we were both nervous, as any parents would be, and eager for him to become more immersed in our community. We wanted him to experience friendships with kids from different backgrounds and learn about other cultures first hand. The transition went smoothly and he began coming home from school excited to tell us about his new friends. The majority of the students in his school are from East Indian countries and his friends had names that we’d never heard before. To our son, though, all names were basically new, so the names of his friends “Mahbubah” and “Mohammed” were no stranger to him than “Mary” or “Michael.”
Pretty early in the school year, our son began asking for playdates. Playdates, I only now realized, were something we had been taking for granted. At the Jewish preschool he went to a couple of days a week, it was a regular occurrence. We were invited to his friends’ homes and we reciprocated at our place. Now, he was in a huge school building where I dropped him off outside in the morning with no opportunity to speak with other parents.
As it turns out, the majority of parents in his class spoke little to no English anyway. I had always imagined having a class list, with parent contact information, but this was not the case. The combination of the multi-lingual community and limited technology in homes made it useless. Arranging a playdate for my son seemed like a real challenge.
I took the opportunity of chaperoning a field trip to try to engage with other parents. I began a conversation with a father who was also on the trip. His English was limited, but we were able to make some small talk. I suggested letting the boys play together in the playground after school, and he seemed interested. I felt like I was making progress, only to find out that language wasn’t our only barrier. There were also all kinds of cultural differences at play. He gave me his wife’s phone number to make arrangements, and the conversation ended. I wanted to call her many times, but knowing that she spoke even less English than he did, I couldn’t imagine how we would be able to successfully communicate by phone. I never saw her in person, she didn’t know who I was, and so I basically just chickened out on calling her.
Over the next two years, I had several other failed attempts at arranging playdates. After school, we routinely went to the playground or park and my son would play with any kids who were there. He was friends with all the kids in his classes and was generally happy. The lack of home-based playdates wasn’t necessarily a problem, but I still felt disappointed that I had not managed to help him foster closer friendships outside of the school setting.
This year, in second grade, he has a “best friend” at school who happens to live in a building at the end of our block. We see him with his mother and siblings walking to and from school daily. His mother wears a hijab, so her entire body is covered but her face is exposed, so I am able to see when she smiles warmly at me. Even though we can’t say much more to each other than “good morning” and “how are you,” over time we developed a mutual comfort level to walk together with some attempts at conversation and a lot of silence.
After three years at this school, I finally succeeded, this week, in hosting a playdate. With her son helping to translate, I invited them over. She politely declined for herself but did agree that her son could come. The boys were so excited that our translated conversation ended abruptly as they sped off down the block. I quickly and carefully told her our house number and said goodbye, not having any idea when she might come pick him up.
The boys had a great time playing, and before I knew it his mother was knocking at the door. She left her shoes outside, stepped in, and presented me with a giant box of Oreo cookies to say thank you.
It would have been easy, and less awkward, to avoid interactions with the other class parents. Our son could have played with school friends only at school, while I could have easily arranged playdates with kids from his soccer team, but that would have limited the life experiences for both of us. Now that I was able to go outside of my comfort zone, my son can foster a deeper friendship with a child that he selected.
When he was over, I asked my son’s friend to spell his mother’s name for me. I wrote it down and practiced my pronunciation over the next few days. When we saw each other next, I confidently said hello to her by name, and it was obvious that she had been practicing mine as well. Maybe next time our boys hang out together, we will end up having a playdate of our own, too.