By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
Should I be teaching my children, ages 5 and 8, to include other children when they see someone being excluded? Do I tell them they should try to be friendly to everyone? Or is it better to stay out of it?
When I was their ages I remember both leaving others out (for various reasons) and feeling the pain of being the one left out.
Friendship is a Treasure
Generally all children benefit from guidance when it comes to social skills. And everyone benefits from friendship. This can be momentary as in simply being friendly, or a long lasting friendship that sticks like glue. So, yes, work with your children to look out for someone who needs to be included.
The New Child
It’s hard to be new in a situation where everyone else seems to already have friends. Parents, teachers, scout leaders, etc. can set up an activity in which the adult, rather than the children, matches up partners for a quick activity. Rotate and repeat as long as it takes for an organic friendship to emerge. There’s bound to be a good match between the new child and another child in the group who has lots in common and truly enjoys being with the new child. This may or may not be your child. Don’t force it.
The Quiet Child
Explain to your children that there are children who prefer to stay away from social interactions. If there will be a situation in which children are expected to casually interact, optional solitary activities could be made available – art materials, books to read, animals to watch. You can model the sensitivity it takes to include a child in a way that is comfortable but still contributing when there is a structured group activity. As the adult you can position this child close to, but not in the midst of, the other children with an auxiliary task. Examples could be timing the group’s activity, recording scores or comments, or passing out supplies.
A quiet child probably prefers one-on-one interactions and makes a new friend at a very slow pace. The potential friend who takes the time to sit quietly with them, on more than one occasion, might just become a treasured BFF.
The Quirky Child
Oddball behavior, including language patterns or fashion choices or the contents of a bagged lunch, is a reason a child may be left out when children are free to choose who they want to be with. (If possible, tactfully check with the child’s family to rule out a legitimate reason for the quirky behavior.) Some children choose to behave in a way that is so different it could provoke other children to avoid them or to question their bizarre choices. They may do this to prove they are unlikeable and unworthy of friendship. Or they may be trying too hard to get noticed hoping this will attract admirers. Adults can intervene by modeling acceptance of differences. Have activities including conversations that show the value of individuality. Generate dozens of possible ways to do things to demonstrate that there are countless unconventional, yet perfectly acceptable, ways to use language, to dress, or to pack a lunch.
Difference can be the basis of a good friendship. A picture book by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey, Weird Friends: Unlikely Allies in the Animal Kingdom gives real life examples of animals who are very different from the animals that count on them.
Weird ideas sometimes turn out to be very good ideas. Read Josh Curte’s book about Jonas Hanway’s Scurrilous, Scandalous, Shockingly Sensational Umbrella.
The Aggressive Child
An observant adult, or the adult who cares enough to ask good questions, will detect when a child is being ostracized because of threatening behavior. Children should be encouraged and applauded for bringing concerns to an adult about a bully. Also applaud good instincts for recognizing and staying away from a child who may be dangerous.
Approach the situation as a collaboration to get to the root cause with other adults who know the child who is being aggressive. (Read about causes and solutions for bullies) Bullies choose vulnerable victims so it is important to educate all children about prevention. This includes practicing the buddy system, always knowing where your nearest grown-up is, and identifying the trusted adults who can get involved to make things better for everyone. Because we can.
Yes, it is important to teach children to welcome others in friendship and that grown-ups can assist when needed.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.
She will be presenting a workshop for parents and others who want tips about “Stress with Children” Saturday, February 12, 9-11 am. Register in advance for this and other upcoming Zoom workshops.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.