I am an introvert by nature. I cherish any time I can spend alone in a quiet house, preferably in my pajamas. I don’t feel comfortable in crowds, and I’m not the type to strike up a conversation with someone I don’t know.
Because of this, I dreaded the schoolyard pick-up and drop-off scene. There are no buses to my kids’ school, so twice a day the blacktop is covered in adults milling around, waiting for the bell to ring. It’s like an awkward psychological experiment (or maybe an amateur flash mob) waiting to happen.
When my older son started kindergarten, I kept my head down and didn’t interact with anyone. The whole situation was foreign and unknown to me, so I stayed in my shell. The other worry-inducing factor was my younger son, who was along for the ride every day in his stroller. Like most toddlers, his moods and behaviour were volatile, and I desperately wanted to avoid a public meltdown – and the ensuing stares. I got in and out as swiftly as I could.
As my kids got older, though, I gained more confidence. My younger son started kindergarten and the routine felt familiar. At school events and field trips, I learned the names of my kids’ peers, and took note of which parents they ran to at the end of the day. I began to shyly say hi to moms and dads that I recognized.
Many years later, it surprises even me to admit that I’m no longer super-stressed about the schoolyard. I have chatted with a variety of parents and discovered that people are actually quite interesting. Who knew? (The extroverts, I guess.)
For example, one mom is from Argentina, and another is from Colombia. I met a mom who has no hair due to an autoimmune disease (and she was kind enough to let me interview her about it). One of the dads is a firefighter, and another is on the verge of completing his Ph.D. One mom rides a skateboard, and another has a job making – of all things – drones. We all share the same square of asphalt.
If you’re on the shy side too, here are my amateur tips for navigating the schoolyard:
Consider pandemic protocols.
In many regions, physical distancing is still highly recommended, so be courteous and provide plenty of personal space. Also, be sensitive to the fact that people may still feel nervous or jittery as they return to social situations (and who can blame us, after months of living like hermits?).
Ask about them – and their kids.
Most people are keen to talk about themselves, and even more excited if someone inquires about their kids. Ask how their child’s school year is going or what extra-curricular activities they’re involved in – anything to get a conversation started. If you’re a private person, you don’t have to share a lot – just listen.
Figure out who’s who.
Seek out the family members of the kids your son or daughter frequently mentions when discussing the events of the day. It’s helpful to make connections with your child’s friends, especially if you receive an invitation to a birthday party or playdate. Pay extra attention to determine if you’re meeting a parent, step-parent, grandparent or other caregiver.
Another reason that I held back from parent interactions was that I often felt frumpy and unkempt. I used to tear myself down by imagining how a style-conscious parent might describe me to someone else: “No makeup, messy ponytail, same black yoga pants every single day.” As you might expect, this did nothing for my self-esteem. Eventually I got over it and realized that this isn’t a fashion contest, and even if it is, I’m not interested in entering.
Avoid shaking your head (outwardly or inwardly) at the parent who appears overly frazzled or is dashing for the door at the bell, because that could be you tomorrow. You don’t know every family’s backstory or the challenges they might be facing, so err on the side of being forgiving.
Parents in a schoolyard are all in the same boat. We all lead busy lives and we’re doing the best we can. I understand if you’re not keen on mingling, but my advice is to start small, on your own terms. It turns out that if you keep your eyes up and your mind open, you’re likely to meet some very nice people.