I'd like to dedicate this column to my childhood friend Denis, who died this week. In the e-mails that have gone back and forth among those of us who knew him since second grade, we all talk about his inclusiveness. Denis built a sense of community by reaching out to everyone in the class. The unsaid part was how unusual he was. Unlike Denis, many kids, and even many adults, strive to preserve their place by excluding others.
For parents, there is almost nothing as painful as seeing one's child excluded from a group. We feel for our kids and worry that ostracism may lead to dire consequences. It's very basic to want to belong to a pack, and so a child's hovering on the outside can seem downright scary. Before discussing how you can help your kids successfully navigate the sometimes difficult group dynamics that are part and parcel of childhood, I think it will be helpful to explore how children's friendships and social groups evolve over time.
Preschool and Kindergarten Groups Friendships at this age are fluid, often based on proximity and shared activities. A frustrated four-year-old may roar "You can't come to my birthday party!" at the playmate who's taken his toy, even though the day before they were "best buddies." Living in the moment, young children generally can't hold on to earlier experiences of cooperative play. What the playmate did at that very moment defines whether or not he or she is a "friend."
Kindergartners working in the block area or preschoolers playing in the house corner often have difficulty finding a role for a new member of the group. Early-childhood teachers help kids learn how to enter groups without alienating those already playing. They may help a child learn how to use non-threatening words to enter a play group or request a turn. Teachers also help those already playing learn how to welcome a new addition to the group rather than resist their entry. For example, a teacher might say to a group in the house corner, "Robin wants to play. Who could she be?"
School-Age Groups As children move into the middle years they begin to form more selective friendships. They like to spend time with kids with compatible temperaments, personalities, and interests. For example, kids who are focused on art will bond with others interested in art. Physically active kids may hang out together.
Being accepted by a peer group becomes increasingly important to school-age kids. During this time boys and girls typically form separate groups as they concentrate on what it means to be a boy or girl. This can be disquieting to parents, who wonder why their kids are shunning old friends or are embarrassed to be seen with a former buddy of the opposite sex. It's during this time that group behavior becomes exaggerated. While teachers and parents would like to help kids cope with issues of belonging and exclusion, much of kids' jockeying goes on behind the scenes, out of adult sight. It's a challenge to get kids to talk about what they are experiencing, or witnessing, but it's often worth the effort.
School-Age Girls Some girls, unfortunately, become weirdly cliquish and mean toward other girls. The research doesn't explain exactly why, but it may be that each girl fears being judged, or shunned, and therefore clings to her status in a group. A girl may worry that a disloyal member of the group will steal her best friend or reveal her secrets. She may fear that bringing in someone who is new, and potentially more popular, will jeopardize her own role. I know of girls who have phoned other girls just to let them know that they're not in "the club."
School-Age Boys Boys have different relationships within groups. It's been said that they are more accepting of peers of different ages and diverse abilities because everyone is needed and has a role. (Supposedly, this goes back to the days of hunting.) However, boys can also be ruthless toward each other. A bully often picks on someone younger or particularly sensitive because that child triggers his own fears of being vulnerable. Power and influence come into the mix as boys create teams and compete. Tough-guy behavior and name-calling can peg someone in a way that becomes hard to shake.
What You Can Do
It's not easy, but there are things you can do to help your kids cope with the challenges of social life in elementary and middle school.
- Respect your child's need to feel accepted. Remember that it's natural and developmentally appropriate for kids to want to be part of a group. While you can certainly provide perspective, don't ridicule or discount what may seem to be an exaggerated desire to be liked and included.
- Encourage more than one peer group. Putting all one's social currency in one basket is risky. If kids have a variety of peer groups—school, neighborhood playmates, Scouts, religious school friends—they will experience a range of roles and positions. Various groups value different strengths and will help your child see himself in more than one light.
- Help your kids develop enduring social skills. The saying goes, "To have a friend, be a friend." Encourage your kids to develop the ability to listen and empathize with their friends and to be trustworthy, communicative, and collaborative in their friendships.
- Support your child's individuality. You can provide a much-needed antidote to the peer group's pressure to conform. Encourage your kids to value themselves as unique and worthwhile beings. Remind your child how her appearance, personality, and interests bring something special to the world that nobody else can duplicate.
- Don't get swept up in kid values. We all identify with our kids and feel personally wounded when they aren't accepted in a group. However, some parents become so fixated on their kids' social lives that they themselves believe that the "right" toys, shoes, or fancy birthday party will buy acceptance. It's an easy trap to fall into, but consider what messages you're sending your kids.
- Encourage your kids to look beyond the moment. Your school-age kids won't totally believe this, but it's important for them to hear from you that the values, abilities, and strengths that aren't appreciated in fifth grade may be valued by high school, in college or in adulthood. Whether it's Revenge of the Nerds or Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, there's a reason that reunion movies are so popular.
- Seek advice from teachers and other professionals. Enlist help from the teacher or school counselor if your child's in a socially difficult situation. A teacher may identify a child or group whose friendship your son or daughter can cultivate. If your child is feeling strong distress, having problems forming friendships, or having trouble fitting into a series of groups over time, you can also talk to the pediatrician. There are professionals with expertise in helping kids develop some very learnable social skills.
- Encourage your child to be inclusive. Last but not least, encourage your children to be like my friend Denis, who made other kids feel valued. Suggest they call the new kid in class or get to know the child who often sits alone. Denis had the strength of character to never be mean or exclusionary. He valued community, and in reaching out to others, he set an example of generosity and friendship for which he'll be long remembered.