For two years living in Kenya, Ruby’s world was not so much about friendship. At the young
age of four, she went on a school bus with no one she knew across a big, unfamiliar city to a bilingual kindergarten at the German School of Nairobi. Once there, most of the other kids spoke German to each other, leaving Ruby feeling unsure of how to join in. Afterschool play dates were harder to arrange with a mom working many hours and the other expat houses being far across the city.
For Ruby, those years were much more about her family, her loving housekeeper Margaret, mangoes, and fun outdoor African experiences - once in a lifetime experiences for sure. Still, Ruby’s social life was probably the biggest casualty of our family’s move to Kenya. She often played by herself on the German School playground, and sometimes she told me that she didn’t have any friends. She said she didn’t mind, and she liked playing by herself. Still, my heart sank.
It’s hard to know what of this was the developmental phase of being four years old, what was Ruby’s personal way (she often liked to play by herself at her preschool in New York), and what was the cultural adjustment and linguistic barriers she was forced to overcome. Thankfully, Ruby is a naturally happy person, and she weathered the experience relatively well. She even managed to make some close friends in her last year there.
Still, maternal anxiety can be hard to shake. If I wasn’t worried enough about the higher risk I’d subjected my children to from a potential carjacking or home invasion, now I was guilty about having permanently impaired her social life. Isn’t every little girl supposed to have girlfriends to play “mommy and daddy” with and to giggle with ‘til their pants fall down?
What I didn’t foresee during my most anxious moments – was how much she would step out into the world once she had her big chance. Maybe that experience of slowly gaining confidence in a less comfortable social situation armed her with something deep and lasting. Afterall, don’t we grow more from overcoming challenges than from never having to face them? Or maybe, Ruby’s just a contrast gainer. If she could manage to be happy there, the social life amongst children of your own culture and your own language is a PIECE OF CAKE.
Now that we’re back in our old familiar little pond, Ruby is THRIVING socially. I see her running around the neighborhood to find her friends like a homing pigeon who’s finally come home to roost. I see the imaginative interplay between Ruby and her friends taking on a beautiful life of its own. And, the giggles – ah, the giggles. Every little girl should feel giggles like that, echoing deep in her gut like the laugher of the whole universe. Ruby got her friends back. God, I’m so grateful.
For those two years, Ruby and I talked about starting up a group together. We’d call it “Princess Warriors” – named after the familiar phrase I’ve been saying to her for years: “Ruby, say it like a Princess Warrior.” With this simple reminder, she could stop crying when her brother took a toy away, go into a powerful stance, put her arm out and assertively say, “Stop. I don’t like that.” And if there was nothing else that a move and life in Nairobi taught us, it was how to step beyond your comfort zone, transcend your fear and be bigger and braver for it. So, Ruby and I fantasized together about what a group might be like once we got home – how Mama could be involved when my work in Africa was finished. She waited patiently.
That’s why I had to start these groups. I made my little girl a promise, and we’re doing it together. After years of work with runaway youth, traumatized children and splintered families, and in recent decades, the world's most vulnerable refugees – I turned my attention to the young ones closest to my heart. These are the girls who hold so much power within them to change the world for the better. And, maybe – just maybe - this generation can finally learn that they don’t have to sacrifice their own happiness in the process.
Princess Warriors is dedicated to my precious Ruby – who shows me every day what it means to feel unfettered happiness and to shine your light out into the world. And whatever shape this playful experiment in warrior training takes, I pray that every little girl grows up knowing the fullness of her power to overcome challenges, accept herself, live fully, and giggle with loving, close friends through all the phases of her life.