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When the social world is a puzzle

My son finds it hard to make friends, that's why this new relationship is so precious, Erin Pettit writes

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

When my son turned 9, his dad and I gave him a science kit for growing crystals. He loved it. With help, he mixed the packaged chemicals to start the process. After school, he would burst through the door and rush to his room to see the new formations: rich cobalt blue and bright yellow growing in unpredictable angles and directions.

At 13, Ben still rushes to his room after school. He craves time alone to recover from the onslaught of the day. Even with a skilled teacher, staff and supportive peers, moving through busy hallways, staying calm and focused enough to learn is an enormous challenge.

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When my son and his twin sister were little, we'd take them to the neighbourhood park. My son would approach other kids with awkward hellos. But he would stand too close, speak too softly or run away in the middle of another kid's sentence. Most of the time, children would drift away, not knowing how to respond.

Eventually, Ben learned that it was easier not to approach other kids. He retreated to the company of adults, who are more indulgent and predictable conversation partners. He spent his recesses walking and talking with teachers and school staff.

Social groups, school and many interventions over the years have helped. But the social world is more complex than those of us who navigate it with relative ease realize.

The stark difference between his own social life and his sister's is not lost on Ben. His sister is in the midst of a swirl of early-teenage friendships. Daily drama rushes along with gale-force intensity. Snapchat, texting, sleepovers, late-night digital conversations hidden from parents. Status and popularity rise and fall with reckless frequency. This is the social terrain of a 13-year-old girl.

In the eye of the teenage sea-swirl around him, my son watches and learns. To his mind, this social world is an illogical puzzle, with all of its complex, unwritten rules.

When he sees his twin going off to another sleepover, another birthday party, another movie with a friend, he craves those connections that his parents can't give him.

His own voice is emerging, perhaps too much so at times. A burp or an edgy comment can get attention – but not friends. He is learning though. He's on Instagram now, posting pictures of Mr. Bean with funny captions: "They're called memes, mom."

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His conversation skills are sharp from years of conversing with adults. He understands why it's not okay to ask a grownup how old they are, although often he can't resist. He's astute enough to know that if an adult asks you to guess their age, you shave off 10 years.

As we approach the end of elementary school, Ben is wondering what's next. He will likely separate from the group of kids he has been with since kindergarten. At night, as his classical music plays, we are both kept awake by thoughts about what it will be like in a place where nobody knows him. Ben asks often what school he'll be going to next year, and what the kids will be like. He wants to know how busy it will be in the hallways, if it will still be all right to take walking breaks when he needs them. I wonder if he will find a teacher who understands him.

Our weekday worries are countered by a weekend development: a new friend from his social group. He's a boy from across town who has similar challenges. He is the Stan Laurel to my son's Oliver Hardy.

They bond over things any boys do: Minecraft, cycling, muddy walks in the creek out back, YouTube videos and a shared dislike of Donald Trump. Every time they see each other, they have a big hug followed by a rousing yell of "Dump on Trump!"

They've attended a season of classical concerts at Roy Thomson Hall, marvelled at Ripley's collections of oddities in Niagara Falls and dined on many A&W burgers.

A few weeks ago, my son, his friend and I took our dog for an evening walk in the neighbourhood. It was dark by the time we made our way through the windy suburban streets. For a while, the boys walked in comfortable silence, their energy spent after a long day together.

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Then, as we rounded the top of our street, a tentative question came through the dark: "So how was your weekend Ben?" My son's hearty reply, "Well my weekend was great. Absolutely great. How was yours?"

In the chill air, their clear voices hung suspended like crystals – a gift I know will remain in my memory to go back and unwrap often. The gift of connection, of commerce between two souls.

As their conversation continued, I realized I was holding my breath so I could hear everything, the sweetness of the back and forth. Turning for a quick sideways glance, I was struck by the beautiful profile of two boys becoming teens.

The dog and I took a few steps away from the happy duo. Then a few more. As their voices mingled in a comfortable back and forth sprinkled with laughter, I drifted farther from my son and his friend. Under a soft street light, they walked and talked: two crystals connecting and growing into their own true nature as crystals do. They are each other's catalyst: growing slowly, miraculously into something unexpected, a source of wonder.

Erin Pettit lives in Dundas, Ont.

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