As a little kid, my son Henry loved meeting new people, and preschool made him almost dizzy with joy. While we walked back to the car at the end of the first day -- he was doing this little half-bounce, half-skip dance of pleasure -- he kept saying, "Thank you for my new school, Mommy. Thank you for giving me this school."
Henry's natural exuberance was contagious, and everyone loved him. But in third grade, the other boys began to play football every day at recess, a game Henry truly hates, and the whole dynamic started to shift. For a while, he kept playing tag with the girls, even though the boys gave him unending grief about it. But then some of the girls started a private club, and some of the other girls started a rival club, and some of the girls in the original club got mad and started a third, even more exclusive club, and none of the clubs allowed boys.
Henry decided he had to give football a try. But after he got knocked down a few times, he gave up. "I'm sure you're not the only boy who doesn't like football," I said. "What about your friends in chess club? What about the other Cub Scouts?"
"Some of them don't like football, either," he said, "but they play because they don't want to be an outcast." I knew what he was thinking -- "an outcast like me" -- and it broke my heart.
Outside of school, kids will play with whomever they've got to play with -- siblings, children of their parents' friends, next-door neighbors. Any playmate is better than no playmate, so the dynamic is very flexible.
But in school, where there's a wide choice of friends, all bets are off. Children may pair off with a "best friend," join a group that's constantly fighting, feign interests to gain acceptance, even reject other children for no reason. For parents, it's bewildering because it all happens behind closed school doors. That's why Parenting set out to discover what's really going on in that social minefield of shifting alliances and unexpected explosions -- so you can help your child through the inevitable stumbles.
Kids Are Who They Play With
"Kids see their friends as part of their identity," says Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. The older children get, the more they're drawn to kids who share their interests or their sense of humor.
That's what Homewood, AL, mom Wendy Price Murch learned when her 6-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party. "On the patio, there was loud music and children dancing, but Kellyn made her way to a small play area where a few stragglers were sliding and swinging. I know it's her nature to be more of an introvert, but I so wished she felt comfortable enough to join the laughing, dancing group of kids."
It's natural for a mom in this situation to wonder about her child's social skills, but a kid who's perfectly happy hanging in the background with her best pal isn't a kid you need to be too concerned about, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends: "Some children genuinely prefer having one or two close friends rather than a passel of acquaintances." There's an easy test to distinguish a generally happy but quiet kid from a socially awkward one: Does she have someone to sit with at lunch every day? "If the answer's yes, parents probably don't need to worry," says Kennedy-Moore.
But that doesn't mean reserved kids can't benefit from a little nudge (see "Helping an Awkward Kid Fit In," below). "There can be a vicious cycle where kids who feel awkward in social situations avoid them, which means they have less practice interacting with peers, which means they are less skilled socially, which means they feel more awkward, which means they avoid social situations more," says Kennedy-Moore. If that might be happening with your child, gently encourage him to go to that birthday party he's not sure about. Kennedy-Moore suggests saying something like "I know you'd rather stay home, but you've always loved going to the play place [or whatever], and I'm confident you'll have fun once you get there." You might also mention the other child's feelings: "Jason will feel hurt if you don't go, and he may think you don't like him. I know you don't love parties, but attending when we're invited is something we do for friends." Offering to hang around for a few minutes or arranging to arrive with a close friend can make the initial contact easier, as well. As long as you respect who your child is and don't push too hard, he'll be grateful for your help.
Girls Play with Girls, and Boys Play with Boys
Opposite-gender children function together quite well when there's an adult in charge. But when it's a matter of personal choice, they relentlessly segregate themselves into same-sex playgroups. This isn't because boys and girls are inherently incompatible, though: In studies of intelligence and personality traits, there's very little difference between individual girls and boys. But groups of boys behave very differently from groups of girls. By second or third grade, both boys and girls become fiercely intolerant of any variation in what they consider acceptable male or female behavior, and they monitor each other constantly for any sign of divergence from the "right" behavior, clothes, toys, or interests. For some children, the pressure can be absolutely agonizing. "My eight-year-old daughter worries herself sick over what clothes she should choose: Is pink too girly-girl? Is my T-shirt too tomboyish?" says Francine Gugliotta of Hicksville, NY.
Eventually, most kids figure out for themselves how to pass the test, even if they have to fake it to make it. "My son Jake, who's eight, still loves everything related to Legos and Star Wars, but the boys at school say those interests are 'stupid,'?" says Nashville mom Lou Anne Wolfson. "He still plays with Legos and watches Star Wars, but only in the privacy of his own home. At school, he talks about shooting air guns and playing Super Smash Brothers on the Wii."
But Not All Girls (and Boys) Play With All Other Girls (and Boys)
Social acceptance is more complicated than simply banding with same-sex friends, of course. Even within gender groups, kids tend to subdivide. Sometimes these subgroups are based on similar interests or personality traits: There may be a group of fashiony girls, or pop-savvy girls, or hippie girls, or academic achievers. But often it's not clear what the defining trait of a particular group is, much less what the rules of membership might be.
"A lot of these social groups are based on hierarchies," explains Lagattuta. One or two extremely popular kids in the group determine who's in and who's out, and everyone else falls in line behind them. The alpha kids tend to be smart (but not nerdy), attractive, athletic, and outgoing, and to have a social confidence that attracts other children. Being embraced by one of these kids is a sure ticket to social acceptance.
But in grade school, social leaders don't always use their power for good, something Sonja Hefta of Mayville, ND, was reminded of last year. "When Ingrid was nine, one girl in her class suddenly decided that the other kids couldn't be friends with her and Ingrid. This girl made people miserable if they tried to be friends with both, and Ingrid went from having many friends to none."
When a powerful child turns on her minions for no discernible reason, it can be terrifying -- not just for kids who are trying desperately to become accepted but also for the children who are already in. "Children know that membership in a social group is a fragile situation," says Lagattuta. "One day someone likes you, and the next day they don't." That's why perfectly nice children often won't defend another child. It's not that they're heartless; it's that the lower down you are on the social ladder, the harder it is to stand up to the group. Plus, it's difficult for kids to understand that doing nothing can actually be hurtful, she says. If your child lets on that she's in this position, Lagattuta suggests asking her to think about how she would feel if she were the target -- how grateful she'd be if someone stood up for her and how upset she'd be if no one did. It may not immediately change things, but there's a good chance it will get her thinking about what makes a good friend.
That said, alpha kids aren't totally insulated from the crowd, either: They can lose or gain status from school year to school year just like everyone else. To help kids weather the ups and downs, encourage them to make a variety of friends in a variety of settings -- by joining school clubs and rec-league sports teams, and inviting different kids to come home for playdates. For those children who are feeling completely rejected, your goal is to help them gradually rediscover their confidence, says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of the new book Making Friends: A Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child's Friendships. "Plenty of happy home time with family, safe friends, and cousins, often helps unsettled kids forget the hurt," she says. To help them handle a tough moment at school, come up with a prepared response they can use, like "Why do you need to say/do this? What's your problem?" Another option: a mantra. "When my daughter Rosanna felt uncertain, she felt stronger when she could repeat to herself, 'I'm a good, kind person. She's the nightmare!'?"
Having Cool Stuff Really Does Matter
It's just a fact: Human beings are social animals, and we influence each other's attitudes and ideas. There's a reason American moms stopped driving station wagons and started buying minivans, and then stopped driving minivans and bought SUVs -- and it's not because we all suddenly needed four-wheel drive. But take this ordinary human tendency to be a copycat, multiply it by an order of magnitude, and what you'll get is the typical American kid.
When her daughter was in sixth grade, Anna Davis of Huntsville, AL, got a crash course in how image-consciousness works: "Julie kept saying, 'I need a North Face jacket and some Wallabees,' and I kept saying, 'Well, maybe for Christmas.' She continued to beg, 'Everybody has them but me!' and I continued to put her off. Then I went to her school's fall festival, and my mouth dropped. It was true: Everybody but Julie was sporting those two items."
Children are highly susceptible to advertising, but ads aren't the only explanation for this kind of groupthink. When a popular kid chooses a certain style of clothing, or adopts an interest in some aspect of popular culture, the other kids give it a closer look. And what they find (surprise!) is they really like it, too. Wearing the right shirt, renting the right movie, downloading the right music, bringing the right snacks to practice -- it all makes kids feel more a part of the crowd.
For parents, the issue is more complicated. We want our kids to fit in and feel comfortable, but this loot can get really expensive. Plus, do we really want them believing they can buy their way into social acceptance? To acknowledge a child's urgent need to belong without breaking the bank or completely backing down from your beliefs, Lagattuta recommends compromising: Buy the "cool" version of frequently worn items -- like shoes and jackets -- but the discount brand of everything else. With older children, Lagattuta suggests giving kids a spending limit for back-to-school shopping: "They can decide whether they want to blow the budget on a few high-priced items, lots of low-priced items, or a mix."
Their Social Lives Affect Us, Too
Years ago, when I was the new kid in school, I was the only girl in third grade who didn't get a party invitation, a snub that was perfectly apparent because the birthday girl handed out those little pink envelopes at school just before the last bell rang. Not only was I being excluded, but all the other kids in the class knew I wasn't invited. Mom was waiting for me in the pick-up line, and I barely made it to the car before I burst into tears. While I was telling the story, Mom teared up with me. Then she called the other girl a brat. Which, according to Hartley-Brewer, wasn't such an awful thing to say: "Children find it reassuring to have parents clearly assert, 'It's the mean kids who have the problem, not you.'?" (Though she cautions against trashing the mean kid if the two are still somewhat friendly.)
I remembered my mother's reaction the day Henry came home upset after his failed attempt to play football. My own impulse was to march down to that school and deliver a lecture on kindness and basic humanity to the entire third-grade class. But then I thought about how it had all turned out for me: I got over it. I was a happy kid, and before long, I made friends at my new school, and I was just fine. And I know Henry's going to get over any of his social setbacks, too. I'm just not totally sure I will.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor to Parenting.