Playground Politics

There are few things more painful in this world than watching your beloved child be purposefully excluded, teased, ignored, or rejected by their peers.

 Many loving, compassionate, and mild-mannered parents have been reduced to red-faced, jaw-clenching maniacs who imagine unmentionable fates befalling small children….if that small child hurt their kid’s feelings. On purpose.

 This special blend of fury and fear that comes when our child is being harmed is unlike any other in our parenting experience. We are both fiercely angry at our child’s “aggressor,” and fiercely terrified of this impacting their fragile spirit and sense of self-worth.

 What complicates these situations is that we’re coming to the playground with our own past social injuries. If we were teased, bullied, excluded, invisible….the pain of watching our child experience social pain is almost unbearable. We are often not very good at helping our child through it, because we are re-living it through them. Sometimes, we even make it worse by taking things more seriously than our child is actually experiencing them.

 The hard truth is that social stratification is a real thing. It starts early, somewhere around age 4, and happens everywhere….regardless of class, race, culture, or geography. Researchers have found this same social hierarchy emerge in children not only in developed media-rich countries, but also in remote villages in third world countries across the globe.

 Children start to divide themselves based on gender, where before they didn’t seem to notice if they were playing with a boy or girl. A social hierarchy also begins to emerge, that eventually leads to one or more “alpha males” and one or more “queen bees.”

 Boys dominance is based largely on physical ability. Who’s the fastest? The strongest? Who can build the most awesome fort? Who can do the most “epic” trick on their skateboard?

 For girls, dominance is based on social skills. Who is the most persuasive? Funniest? Most confident? Who can draw other girls in, at the expense of their “old” friends. Sound brutal? Sometimes it is.

 One of my favorite books on this subject is Best Friends, Worst Enemies by Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace. The first time I was a red-faced, jaw-clenched parent this book really helped me get some perspective.

Thompson and Grace write that research demonstrates that children tend to divide up into these categories and in these percentages….

 ”Popular” – Almost universally liked and rated as “popular” by their peers - 15%

 ”Accepted” – Generally accepted and liked by the majority of their peers - 45%

 ”Rejected” – Generally not accepted and not liked by the majority of their peers, either because they are considered “mean” or “strange” – 10-12%

 ”Neglected” – The “invisible” kids who go unnoticed – they are neither strongly liked or disliked. – 4%

 ”Controversial” – These kids are adored by some, hated by others. – 4%

 ”Ambiguous” – These kids did not fit the mold, and seemed to break the social “rules.” – 20%

 As a parent, the important question to ask first is one you ask yourself. What category were you in as a child/adolescent? Knowing your sensitive spots will give you a better shot of parenting in a helpful way.

 And don’t be scared to talk to your child about these different “groups.” You’ll be surprised at how quickly they can identify which students belong to what group, including themselves. This conversation also gives you a window into discussing how they might feel about being in one group versus another, and whether they wish they were in a different group.

 Having a parent that a child can talk to about feeling excluded or teased, or worse…bullied, is one of the most important factors in resiliency. Kids who have a parent for support do better with social hardship than kids whose parents are either not available, or too reactive about the subject.

 Remember, when your child comes to you with a worry, some hurt feelings, or a confession, what you do in that moment defines whether you’ve got a shot of them coming to you again.

 When we are dismissive or overly reactive, we risk losing the trust it took to come to us. No matter how scary, painful, or infuriating it might be…try saying “Thanks for coming to me and being honest – I love that we can talk about this kind of stuff” BEFORE you lecture or have an emotional reaction.

 And remember, no matter how similar your child’s social experience is to what yours was….it’s different. They are a different person, with different feelings, and a different perspective. Listen, ask questions, be curious, comfort them…but don’t try to “fix” their hurts in order to mend your own. That’s something we have to do on our own.

 But if upon hearing that our child is lonely…or left out…or hurt…we find that all our words fail us, our great ideas and parenting tricks evaporate, and we are reduced to mush…don’t forget that a big hug works pretty darn well too. And one great thing about a hug is that then they can’t see that we’re crying too.

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