I am the mother of two social butterflies super-concerned with the sentiments and feelings of others and of one child with limited EQ and social awareness. Over the last few years, I’ve seen both Cinder and Flora (if you’ve been reading Nothing By The Book, you know which is which) in social situations with other children where either one or the other—or both of them—have been excluded from a game by other children—or have done the excluding themselves, either actively or by aligning with the actively excluding party.
(As a writer, I need to pause here and apologize for that last sentence. Horrid. I hope none of my editors ever read it. If you are an aspiring writer, take note: this is what happens when you try to talk in generalities instead of being specific. Back to the topic at hand.)
A gang of some two dozen neighbourhood children roams our Common area throughout the summer, and every summer we parents witness and try to mitigate some sort of “ditching,” “cliquing,” “I don’t want to play with Jack,” “Patti and Hayley won’t let us play with them!” drama. And every year, on one of my homeschooling or parenting lists, someone brings up the question of “What to do when other children won’t play with mine” or “What to do when my children exclude others.
After years of struggling with this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s way easier to articulate an over-arching philosophy/principle for this than to react rationally and consistently to specific situations… especially if, in those situations, it’s one or the other of YOUR kids who appears to be unkind and un-inclusive… Frankly, it’s much easier if they’re the victim of such a thing. Then you can get all righteously indignant! When they’re the ones saying “I don’t want to play with you,” it’s a whole different set of reactions, isn’t it?
Here’s where my thinking on this idea is right now: I don’t always feel like “playing” with all of my friends. You know? If I invite Emma over for coffee, and she shows up with Laura—or Laura invites herself—and I had my heart set on a tete-a-tete… I won’t be happy. By extension, if Laura and Emma planned a thing, I’m not entitled to crash it/join it just cause I happen to hear about it or see them departing. When we do a Mom’s Night In (or Out), we don’t want a husband to crash it. It’s not a parents/couples night. Ditto when my partner and his buddies go to the shooting range—it’s a testosterone, crazy thing close friends are doing together, and no one’s wife, girlfriend, child – or acquaintance outside that close circle—is welcome, invited or wanted.
(To my know-me-in-real-life readers who are having a hard time picturing Sean holding a gun: He’s ever gone to the shooting range once. But it was the best example I could think of. A wife or casual acquaintance could get away with crashing a movie night or bowling, right? Maybe? Back to the point:)
So if we as adults can set those limits on our sociability—hopefully politely, kindly and respectfully, at least most of the time—surely reasonable for our children to do the same? The difference, I think, is that we need to help our children learn how to articulate those limits and preferences in an… appropriate? considerate? way… and also, to help them figure out how to respond to having those preference communicated to them by others without getting angry, pissy and defensive.
(In fairness to children, we’ve all encountered adults who still suck at both respecting/hearing such messages and communicating them, and sulk if they’re not invited to this or that event, or, worse, use invitation/uninvitation as a social weapon. Especially in this social media world.)
The summer of 2009 was the first that Cinder and Flora started choosing to spend a chunk of their playtime apart from each other, with other friends—often, but not always of the same gender—and it’s required some new learning on my part. When my older boy is building Lego with a friend, and my girl is feeling left out—and tempted to wreck their game because she can’t figure out how to be part of it?—the onus is on me, not to get THEM to include her, but to get ME off my ass and engage HER in something else. And when she and her friends are spinning tales about unicorns at tea parties, and my boy, thinking it’s a stupid game, wants to chuck missiles at them, same thing—I’ve got to gather him up, read a book, set up a science experiment, watch him do stuff on the chin up bar, etc.
This is a hard issue. If you have insight to share, I’d love to hear it. I’m really at a point here were I think there can be no hard and fast rule here. Sometimes, the “you can’t play with us” is meant to be nasty and hurtful and then we react in a very different way than when its intent is more benign. Sometimes the child—or the adult—hears “you can’t play with us” when it wasn’t said or intended. Sometimes, the parent hears or sees something the children aren’t aware of—or the children are reacting to an undercurrent the parent doesn’t see.
And sometimes, a quick, “Let’s think of a way that we can tweak the game so that everyone can play” is all that’s needed.
First two photos, uncredited, from Wikipedia; last photo (The Pigeon and The Unicorn by gordon2208)
Note. The original draft of this post was written on August 23, 2009, in context of a discussion on Unschooling Canada. I’ve modified considerably here… but even with the revisions, as I re-read it, I’m thinking of filing it under “least helpful post ever.” But that’s the nature of the issue, I think. No easy answers. Unless you’ve got one? Do you?