Many children, especially latch-key kids who must fend for themselves while one or both parents work, suffer from loneliness. Some have it worse than others. I can relate, having endured years of loneliness as a child. While I’m not a trained child psychologist, some of the basic habits I used to overcome loneliness may be helpful to parents of lonely children, as well as to the kid themselves.
By all accounts, I was a lonely child. My older brother, usually charged with watching over me, couldn’t be bothered to play as we were separated by four years. It might as well have been 10, for his friends teased him about babysitting his sister and his interests were far different than mine. With no other kids in the neighborhood my age, this generally resulted in me spending hours by myself. I envied my brother’s many friendships and how happy he seemed to be when around them. I wished desperately for someone to play dolls with me, to cook on my Easy-Bake oven, to build marvelous creations with Legos or Lincoln Logs, all to no avail.
My parents both worked and when they were home, there were chores to do, dinner to prepare and dishes to clean afterwards. I helped as much as I could, yet I was mostly in the way of getting the meals to the table on time. This made me feel left out and didn’t help with how lonely I felt all the time. Little did I know that some of the daily activities I took for granted would greatly assist me in becoming more externally-motivated and less prone to dwelling on how sad, depressed and lonely I felt.
A bright spot for me turned out to be reading. My love of the written word began early as my mother read to me every evening, no matter how tired she was and how much laundry or other tasks remained to be done before she could rest. I loved the colorful photographs in these books and remember vividly the wondrous tales told by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other chronicles, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and a host of other books. I started reading books on my own before age 5 and my mother took me to the public library once a week to borrow several to keep me occupied for the next seven days. I quickly graduated from typical children’s books to ones with fewer pictures and longer chapters. I read through complete series, several genres at a time, always eager to see what was new at the library. What reading did for me was open me to new worlds. I identified with the characters, their challenges and journeys, their triumphs and heartbreaks. I wasn’t alone any longer, now that I had a repertoire of favorite characters.
My strong recommendation is that parents today adopt the practice of reading stories to their children. The earlier this habit begins, the better it is to help develop the child’s imagination, foster a sense of self-empowerment and discovery, and a willingness to try new things. It doesn’t take a great deal of time, either. Just 15-20 minutes a night on a consistent basis will work wonders. Research also shows that curiosity helps children become better at math as well as reading. This is a win-win.
Playing with Dolls
I became an expert at play almost when I began to walk. As a young girl, I had several dollies (my word for my little companions). I’d dress them in various outfits for activities we’d do and little excursions we’d take. The occasional mishap, where a head or limb would fall off during tree-climbing or other strenuous pursuits, didn’t phase me. My dad was, among other things, an expert carpenter. He could literally fix anything. I know. I watched him do it. How, though, did playing with dolls help me overcome loneliness? For one thing, I developed the art of casual conversation, talking with my little charges as if they were human. I even spoke their responses so that everyone both participated and got their turn to say what was on their mind. Naturally, this jumpstarted my imagination, as every day the girls (all my dollies were girls) wanted to experience something new. We had tea parties, played hide-and-seek, picked wildflowers in the field behind our house, sampled strawberries and blueberries from our truck garden and got dirty weeding and picking off caterpillars and other insects clinging to the vegetables.
Lots of girls, and some boys, still like playing with dolls. Whether they’re Barbie and Ken or Wonder Woman, Superman or some other action hero toy, such play stimulates curiosity, enriches the imagination and pushes the boundaries inherent in isolation. Besides, if your children do have friends, it’s wonderful to take the dolls on a little road trip to play with other dolls. This is a childhood pastime that never seems to go out of style, for good reason: it works to keep children amused and occupied with healthy activity.
Our family was modest of means when I was growing up. I didn’t know this, however, until it came time to buying a new toy or dress or something I fancied for Christmas or my birthday. My mother was the one to let me know we couldn’t afford the most expensive item, although she usually cloaked that disappointment with an acceptable substitute. She’d help me make a new wardrobe for my aging dolls, or she’d take me to the sewing center or fabric store to let me pick out ribbons for a new sash to freshen my dress, or other items for my hair. She encouraged me to make what I wanted as well, whether that meant fashioning toy cars from cereal boxes or constructing buildings and houses from leftover cardboard, bits of wood my dad gave me, using twigs for trees and flowers for bushes in the communities I fashioned at the side of the house. To an adult, it might have looked like a mud pile or merely an odd arrangement. My parents, however, knew these were my creations and told me how creative my designs were. Thus, began my lifelong interest in making things, seeing how to extend the life of items, transform them into something new and useful. It was also a trait that others found helpful, and I soon had friends who wanted to make stuff with me.
Instead of automatically replacing what’s broken, out of style, a little threadbare or cracked, encourage your child to figure out ways to redeem the item. Recycle various parts, give them a coat of paint, regard them as trusted family members worthy of respect and friendship. This helps your child develop problem-solving skills, discover talents they didn’t know they had, and instills a sense of pride and self-accomplishment. Besides, knowing how to make things is a skill they’ll use the rest of their lives. People gravitate toward those who can be so self-sufficient.
Spending Time in Nature
Another habit I cultivated early was being outdoors. My parents made it a point for their two kids to spend time outside, no matter the weather or season. While we didn’t know they needed alone time, we didn’t need any prodding to scurry out to play. My brother, of course, raced off to be with his friends, while I had plenty to do with my village creation, picking wildflowers, walking the cat on a leash (he didn’t much care for that). There was sledding and ice skating in the winter, making leaf houses in autumn, and so much more. Since there was a city park adjacent our house, I got lots of exposure to nature. Plus, families picnicked in the area and I was often invited to play with all the kids they brought along. Even though I might never see them again, we had lots of fun. It’s a memory I treasure today. My parents could see me from the window, so I was never far away. I also knew to stay within calling range, so I’d be on time for dinner. Granted, things were much safer decades ago. People were more trusting, and trustworthy. Still, outdoor activity and leisure pursuits are excellent ways to banish loneliness.
Go for walks in nature with your children. Take vacations to visit state and national parks. Go to amusement parks, zoos and wildlife habitats with them. How can you be lonely when you’re able to witness such abundant life, the riches of nature? In addition, you’ll be helping your kids to appreciate what this world has to offer, and love of being in nature is a healthy habit they’ll likely pass on to their children as well.