In my perfect parenting world there is no need for the phrase, “You can’t say you can’t play” because all kids are invited to join in, all kids are tolerant of differences, all kids know how to share, adapt, and behave. More importantly all parents know how to foster inclusion and teach kids compassion and acceptance. These evolved grown-ups don’t rank or dismiss each other, and by default don’t rank or dismiss each other’s kids.
Sadly there is no such world, no such kids, and not many such parents. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. We can all do our part to limit the feelings of low self worth that come from being excluded.
Let’s look at some of the why’s first, and the what-to-do’s after.
1) KIDS exclude others because of unconventional behavior. Often kids are considered odd if for example, they have facial or body tics, talk to themselves, pick their nose publicly, eat paste, constantly pretend they’re space aliens.
2) KIDS exclude others because of aggressive behavior. A child with a history of biting, grabbing, pushing, punching, etc will have a hard time scoring playdates.
3) KIDS exclude other kids because they’re shy and socially awkward. An overly extroverted kid might be excluded because they get too physically close to other kids.
4) KIDS exclude others because they don’t look right. Because they dress “weirdly”, have unconventional features, physical disabilities, or the wrong color skin.
5) KIDS exclude others if they’re less media savvy and/or faux- mature. It’s a sad fact that the more pseudo-grownup kids behave, the cooler they are perceived to be. The child who isn’t plugged in to the latest trends in pop culture, tv, social media, I-pad apps, may have a tough time finding a place.
6) KIDS leave others out unintentionally because they themselves are so present focused, so wrapped up in their own activities. If a game is going, it is the center of their universe. The outsider kid who doesn’t have the personality, social skills or desire to jump right in the game will be left by the wayside. Not excluded exactly, but unrecognized and ignored.
MISTAKES SOME PARENTS MAKE:
1) SOME PARENTS don’t understand unusual childhood development. They hold all kids to the same developmental standards as their own offspring.
2) SOME PARENTS talk disparagingly about other children and adults in front of their own kids, thereby promoting an atmosphere of intolerance.
3) SOME PARENTS don’t invite certain kids to social events like birthday parties, playdates, or impromptu after-school playground migrations.
4) SOME PARENTS don’t cultivate a family attitude of acceptance, instead they rank others and exclude many.
5) SOME PARENTS don’t give aggressive or impulsive kids second or third invitations to play nicely if they’ve misbehaved the first time round.
6) SOME PARENTS don’t risk talking openly with other parents about their child’s problematic behavior. Instead they avoid the topic, the parent and the child.
7) SOME PARENTS don’t remember that other parents are not in the loop when social plans are made because of other commitments. Work, other children, and health issues keep many parents out of sight and out of mind. As a consequence their kids get left out as well.
MISTAKES OTHER PARENTS MAKE:
1) OTHER PARENTS take their kid’s exclusion personally, making it about their own hurt feelings.
2) OTHER PARENTS withdraw their child prematurely from social interactions when things aren’t going well. Or, they don’t withdraw them soon enough when things start to dissolve.
3) OTHER PARENTS project their own social insecurities when their kid is left out. Their own childhood wounds are re-opened and they over-identify with their child’s current social discomfort.
4) OTHER PARENTS misinterpret a lack of reciprocity as rejection when they reach out and extend themselves to some parents.
5) OTHER PARENTS aren’t receptive to feedback provided by friendly parents, teachers and caregivers who may have insight in to their child’s problematic behavior.
6) OTHER PARENTS don’t make enough of an effort to stay in the loop, in spite of their other commitments.
WHAT TO DO
While it’s okay to let kids figure certain things out on their own, this is one area where they need coaching across the board; In Kids and Odd Kids alike. It’s up to ALL parents. Your child’s comfort and safety should always remain your top priority. Don’t force kids to play with children with whom they repeatedly have problems, who cause them undo anxiety, who scare them, who make them feel bad about themselves. But let’s all try to reach out and show our kids how to connect. Here’s what parents can do:
1) YOU CAN model tolerance for immature behavior. Cultivate patience for the socially awkward.
2) YOU CAN keep all snarky, critical comments about others to yourselves. Make sure any gossiping about ANYONE, whatever their age, is never done in front of your own kids. Talking behind people’s backs sets a really bad example.
3) YOU CAN extend invitations to as many kids as it is possible to include. If one-on-one or small group playdates are what your kid wants, that’s totally fine. But make sure they also learn how to play in extended groups. Look towards kids on the sidelines, the invisible and forgotten, the odd but sweet, the over-enthusiastic but well-intentioned.
4) YOU CAN model openness and receptivity your kids can emulate as they get older. This may mean you have to forfeit your own social needs to get down on the ground and be part of the play, to show your kid how to share, to be civil, to engage.
5) YOU CAN read books to your kids about Bullying, Sharing, and Friendship Building, discuss the lessons and act on them.
6) YOU CAN contact other parents who may or may not know their kids are being ostracized, bullied or excluded. Reach across the divide and try to help them and their kids be part of things. Be constructive in your feedback, and open-minded in your approach.
1) YOU CAN try not to project your own insecurities. If you were teased as a kid, you may have a stronger reaction than a parent who never experienced painful social poking. Take yourself out of the equation. Pay attention to what your child needs. If they need you to intervene, you will do a better job if your approach is parental and not personal.
2) YOU CAN avoid over-reacting. Pay close attention and make sure your kid is really troubled by what’s going on, because sometimes they’re not. Sometimes what looks like teasing to you, may be a fun moment in a game. Sometimes playing solo is just what a kid wants and needs.
3) YOU CAN coach your child and stay attuned. Don’t leave them to figure out this complicated social stuff on their own. You also may have to forfeit your own social needs to get down on the ground and be part of the play. Show your kid how to share, to be civil, to engage.
4) YOU CAN rehearse social interactions at home, through game playing with toddlers and straight forward talks about social do’s and dont’s with school-agers. Take a situation that didn’t go so well and re-enact it, show your kid how to make the ending better. Tell them if they can do it with you, they can try it with anybody. Have them practice, but don’t force it. Make it enjoyable.
5) YOU CAN remind yourselves that some parents aren’t initiators or planners, while others are. If a playdate invitation is not reciprocated it may be those non-reciprocating parents are not skilled at social organizing. They might depend on a stream of invites, and may be waiting for one from you!
6) YOU CAN take a deep breath and try to listen non-defensively when other parents offer constructive criticism about your child’s behavior. There may be a kernel or stockpile of truth in the feedback they offer.
7) YOU CAN make sure to stay connected when other commitments keep you out of the loop. Find an ally who’s got their finger on the parenting pulse. Make sure to touch base with them often. Since spontaneous after school trips to playgrounds, houses, or coffee shops are harder for you, be organized ahead of time about setting your child up with play dates, after school activities, etc.
ALL PARENTS CAN:
And keep trying.
Some attempts will fail miserably. Some will have limited success. Some will reap wonderful new rewards. Let’s none of us ever give up on our children or ourselves. And let’s never give up on each other, whoever we are, whatever our shortcomings may currently be.