When kids exclude

English: Agraulis vanillae butterfly.

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?

English: A 1-litre bottle of Hendrick's Gin wi...

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:)

"Hit The Bull's Eye^ These Are Volunteers...

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.

The Pigeon and The Unicorn

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?

15 thoughts on “When kids exclude

  1. I must say that I think it totally depends on the situation and I have seen this a bit with my girls. Emma is the same age as two of her cousins and they even go to pre-school together (the three girls). When at home by themselves, Emma loves to play with Lily and even looks for her, but when she is with her two other cousins, invariably we get this, “Lily you can’t play with us right now.” Mind you Emma and Lily are only 16 months apart. What I have been doing is getting a much cooler toy for Lily to play with on her own and giving her more one on one time. This usually leads to the other kids wanting to see said toy and then Lily is right back in the fold. But I will say this if I see them try ot take said toy from Lily, I do jump in to make sure that they just don’t take it and then exclude her all over again.

    In the end I think like you said we have to be more aware and be more present when stuff like this happens to help field the situation at hand. Sorry for the essay response, but just felt I had to share.

  2. I tend to stick with the option, “Let’s think of a way that we can tweak the game so that everyone can play.” But I also believe that children are entitled to having exclusivity just like adults. To echo what you said, we just need to give them the proper tools to communicate their desire. Great “meat and potatoes” kind of post. Rich stuff!

  3. You raise a really good point here, and I don’t know what the answer is either. I know how it is to be on both ends of the stick, even as an adult.

    I do like your approach of trying to find a way to adjust games and such so that everyone can play. For small kids, I think this is wonderful.

    What plagues me is how to deal with it when they get older. On the one hand, it’s okay to want some alone time with one (or more) of your friends, but on the other, we want to make sure our kids grow up to be nice people.

    Hmmmm…food for thought!

    Awesome post, by the way. As your children are older, I will be looking to you for advice as my child grows up!!!


  4. Nice job – I have a scrap piece of paper flying around with a writing about one specific scenerio along these same lines. I think paying attention is key as in these situations as a lot is going on.

  5. This has been an on-going issue with my daughter since preschool (she’s in Grade 4 now). I think part of the problem is the WAY things are said when one party doesn’t want to play with another. My daughter is very social and she has been known in the past to be the kid who excluded other kids in a group. For the record, she is amazingly awesome and not like that AT ALL anymore. It was so bad within a group of about 4 girls that the school counsellor had to be brought in (in Grade 1). The school counsellor’s position was that it’s ok to want to play with some of your friends and not others at a specific time. It’s all in how you say that to your friend. We can all picture the snooty girl who says, “I don’t want to play with YOU”, but really what is often going through little girl heads is “I want to play with Jasmine right now because we have a cool idea of something we want to do together. Is it ok if we play together next recess?” So the counsellor practiced with the girls how to tell a friend (kindly) that you don’t want to play with them NOW. And the flipside when you are on the receiving end of the “rejection” to be gracious and find someone else to play with or something else to do. I really think that these are all social skills.
    As a parent, I’ve always taken the position that if my one child has a playdate with a friend, they don’t have to include the sibling. It’s best to make other arrangements, even if you have to play “tea party” for an hour. Groan…

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  8. I’m Sorrry but I do have a problem when we as adults are making excuses for our kids and our own excluding behavior
    When you are in a social situation excluding behavior is rude and obnoxious period !!! wether you are an adult or a child Excluding behavior in my opinion is a very juvenile way of behaving and I think we as adults should be teaching our children to be INCLUSIVE !!! In my opinion it will make us a better society
    When there are times you want a private time those can be arranged
    When cousins are together whoever wants to play should be included that should be the rule and if you play you have to play nice
    “Ohana” No one Is Left Behind or
    Left Out

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