ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN
We have a wonderful 7-year-old daughter who has started to tell us that, “no one wants to be my friend!” We don’t get it. She is an outgoing girl with a lot of energy and she participates in scouts, gymnastics and the usual summer camps. It used to seem like she got along well with other children. But something has changed. It is starting to seem that other girls just don’t like her, and I don’t understand why that is.
When we deliver her to school or the soccer field, she runs up and tries to join the other girls. But, they often yell at her and tell her to go away. It makes me so angry to see other children being so mean, and I know it’s breaking her heart. I’ve complained, but the school doesn’t seem to think that she is being bullied, and they won’t do anything about it.
I know our little girl is really a nice, fun person, and it hurts to see her being rejected like this. What can we do to help her?
Lonely on Lee
It is a surprisingly difficult task for children to learn how to fit in and get along with other kids. Even children as young as your daughter will begin to learn that there are some very important, although unwritten, social “rules” to getting along with other kids–and until kids learn these rules, they will struggle.
Like most social rules, children’s rules are essentially based upon fairness, kindness, and mutual cooperation. Children who understand and follow these social rules are learning how to fit in and get along well with other kids. Sadly, the children who don’t know or follow these rules often feel left out. They may even, like your daughter, feel actively disliked and excluded.
If you think back to your own childhood, Lonely, you’ll probably remember some of these unspoken rules about what you and your friends knew were the “right way” or “wrong way” for kids to fit in and get along with others.
The rules about “playing fair” and “taking turns” are two of the most well known social rules. “Not making too big a deal” about either winning or losing is another useful guideline, along with the expectation that kids “shouldn’t get too upset” and “should be able to calm down” reasonably quickly when dealing with common frustrations and disappointments.
I’m guessing, Lonely, that one important thing your daughter has not yet learned is the common, though unspoken, social “rule” about the right and wrong ways to join a group of children who are already talking or playing together.
The “how to join a group rule” says that children should first listen to the conversation or watch the game closely from a short distance, to observe what is being talked about or how the game is being played. Your daughter can gradually let the other children know that she is interested in joining the conversation or playing in the game, by making positive observations such as, “That was funny,” or by helpfully catching the ball when it goes out of bounds and returning it to the players. As your daughter demonstrates that she has the social skill to fit in well with others, the children in the group will readily make room for her to join the conversation or the game.
The wrong way to join a conversation or a game, as you might guess, is just the opposite. A child who doesn’t yet understand the rules about “fitting in” and “getting along,” will boldly interrupt or even try to take over an ongoing conversation. A child who pushes her way into a game already in progress will disrupt the game and irritate the players. When a child does this, the other children often yell, “You can’t do that!” and “You’re ruining it!” and even “Go away!”
These comments aren’t bullying, by the way. They may sound harsh, because young children usually don’t have the social polish to be anything but blunt. What children say when they complain about mistakes like these is honest and to the point. Children who naively push their way into conversations and games are, in fact, doing it ‘wrong.’ Barging in without first watching and waiting for an appropriate opening spoils things for everyone. And, yes, until a child does learn how to smoothly join a group, the other children wish he or she would stay away and stop bothering them!
The good news is, Lonely, that your daughter can and will learn how to fit in and get along well with the other children. Some children pick up these social rules and skills early, and some learn them later. Almost every child learns all the rules eventually. Your little girl is lucky to have caring and attentive parents, who can give her some extra coaching and encouragement to help her over the social speed bumps in her way.
For more good information about the basic social skills children need to acquire and how to teach them, I recommend Friends Forever, by Fred Frankel, the director of the UCLA Children’s Social Skills Programs. I also recommend Mom, They’re Teasing Me, by Michael Thompson, Lawrence J. Cohen and Catherine Grace. Both of these books have a wealth of information to help you help your child learn how to become a truly wonderful friend.