Monday, September 23, 2013

"When She's Nice To Me, I Play With Her."

Over the weekend there was a discussion on Janet Lansbury's Elevating Childcare Facebook page about the common preschool phenomenon of children experimenting with "power" by saying things like, "You're not my friend anymore!" "You can't come to my birthday!" or other forms of arbitrarily, and often hurtfully, excluding others.

Just as we start the school year by warning the parents in our Pre-3 class that hitting (and kicking, biting, taking, etc.) are normal parts of 2 and 3-year-old development, we warn the parents of 4 and 5-year-olds that this kind of exclusionary experimentation is likewise quite common for the older kids. In fact, already, after only one week of school, the children in our 5's class, without any prompting from me, have made the rule, "You can't say you can't play," which will be a good starting point for the kinds of discussions on this topic we will be having all year. The conversations will become increasingly nuanced, especially as we get to the point where we are understanding that sometimes you can say, "You can't play." It's not an easy concept, and it's a process that will continue beyond preschool. 

For some, it will continue well into adulthood: we all know adults who have never learned that you really don't make yourself more powerful by arbitrarily judging and excluding others. These are people most of us avoid -- a version of acceptable exclusion. Like most human things, it can be very emotional and complicated.

If you want to read more about how we deal with this issue at Woodland Park, I invite you to click on the links above. Today, however, I wanted to tell you my own story as a parent of a young child.

As a preschooler, my daughter Josephine engaged in some of the usual exclusionary experimentation, but was more likely to be the one on the other side of the equation. She tended to fall in love with other little girls from afar, then persist in attempting to force friendship upon them, often facing rejection time and time again. We had many tearful trips home from school and playgrounds, especially when she was 4 and 5. We worked out some strategies and I tried to urge her toward more "healthy" friendships, but as she moved on to kindergarten the pattern continued.

There was one "glamorous" kindergarten friend in particular, I'll call her Mary, who tended to run very hot and cold, one day being a "best friend" then turning around the next day with an assertive rebuff. I really tried to urge Josephine toward other friends, often scheduling after school "play dates" with different girls. She loved all of her friends, of course, but Mary was always out there as a sort of unattainable treasure. I knew that we would eventually figure it out, but that didn't make it any easier on either of us.

One day I was driving Josephine and her friend Katrina home from school and the two of them began talking about their day.

Josephine complained about Mary.

Katrina answered matter-of-factly, "When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean to me, I don't."

After a pause, I heard Josephine answer, "That's what I'm going to do."

It was a light bulb moment for both of us. Josephine is now nearly 17-years-old and we still quote Katrina's simple, yet profound wisdom to one another when we find ourselves dealing with challenging people in our lives. When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean to me, I don't -- words by which to live.

Yesterday, our family was having breakfast together at our favorite greasy spoon and amidst discussions about college, Shakespeare, and high school parties, the subject of Mary came up, a girl who Josephine continues to count among her best friends. She still tends to run hot and cold. Josephine said, "She's just Mary. She doesn't hurt my feelings any more. Some people think she's a bitch, but I'll always love her, because I understand her." 

I know its hard to see the tears our children shed when they're young. The pain is real for both our kids and ourselves. And they are necessary. The future seems so far away, but believe me, it's so close you can already touch it. In only a few days time, you too will be sitting in a diner and realize that your child has acquired the wisdom that only comes through tears.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. We are in the heart of 4 year old hot/cold friendship land at the moment. It's hard to not to project my memories from 7th grade on a preschooler...

daycarediva said...

Love this! Female relationships can be SO complicated. Kudos to you and your daughter for figuring out how to accept "Mary" for who she is without passing judgment on her unkind behavior. Can you teach me that trick Teacher Tom? xoxo

Mrs. D said...

I totally understand where you are coming from. My daughter just turned four and is in the "You aren't my friend anymore" stage. Funny I always get, "You aren't my Mommy anymore!" In which I reply, "I will always be your mommy. You don't have to like me because I got after you, but you can't stop being my little girl and I can't stop being your Mommy." It usually works, but then I laugh about it later when she isn't around because as adults we know that's what it means. As children it is very hurtful to hear that. Especially for a child with autism/Asperger's syndrome, who doesn't understand social interactions as well as people without it. I like the answer you and your daughter came up with. I do use that with my 10year old, who has Asperger's syndrome too! Nice!

SLamar said...

Thank you for this post; it's topical for my family right now, as my son is in his first few weeks of school. He told me only a few hours ago how he was feeling about how a similarly "hot and cold" friend has been treating him at school - I shall be passing on Katrina's wisdom to him in the morning...

Jill said...

Well written. Nice story. Thank you for sharing. Would love to be a fly on the wall at your preschool. :)

Anonymous said...

Does it also apply to a child whom seem cant lose the friendship? this one is between my 4yo son and my 6yo daughter: he loves playing with her so much that no matter how mean she is to him, he still complies to her 'rules'. maybe we have to wait till he gets to the 4-5yo stage where he can grasps it--'if you are mean, i dont play with you'? heartbreaking to see him being rejected everytime and still loves playing with his elder sis.

Simone P said...

Hi Tom and everyone,
Such an interesting and complex topic that I think every parent faces repeatedly while raising a child.

I have a 13 year old daughter who talks openly with me about everything, and particularly about navigating issues in her relationships with her friends (which at 13 can sometimes be quite complicated!)

Everything you have said resonates with me, and I love the idea (even at age 43) of 'playing with her when she's nice to me, and not when she is mean'. However, how do we reconcile the hurt experienced, often repetitiously by friends that are hot and cold, or sweet and sour?

Where is the line between 'playing with her when she's nice to me, and not when she is mean', and tolerating a standard in a relationship/friendship that isn't aligned with what we have decided we want from our relationships (and give back in our relationships)in order to feel that we respect ourselves enough to not tolerate the 'mean-ness' we receive when our hot/cold friend is cold?

By teaching our kids to allow this hot/cold from others, which usually coincides with a cycle of forgiveness, re-bonding and hurt, are we setting them up to not know when to step up and demand better for themselves?

In the extreme worst case scenario, are we training them, for their future adult lives, to be submissive to partners/friends who might also demonstrate this type of behavior where the 'being mean' can come in the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse?

Sorry if I have dragged this to a darker place! This post and the comments just threw up some questions that I thought were worth asking and discussing. Simone x

Teacher Tom said...

@Simone P . . . Well, of course, everyone has to find this path on her own. I see Katrina's simple statement as one of great power -- it's about her choosing when and with whom to play. As always, living this philosophy is easier said than done, but the ability to recognize "meanness" (e.g., a sick relationship, cruelty, bullying) and simply walking away is an act of dignity and strength.

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