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What we're teaching our kids

I read an interesting question on Facebook yesterday: Do you make your kids go to playdates and birthday parties when they don't want to go?

I was shocked at what the moms, for the most part, replied. The gist: No. They don't make their kids go. Why would they make their kids do something they didn't want to? Kids have relatively little choice about how they spend their time, so this is where they get to choose. And so on.

That sounds reasonable, right? Of course--until you stop and think about the other child.

There are kids out there who want and need friends. They reach out and invite children over. And no one says yes. There are kids who invite the whole class to birthday parties. One or two kids show up. How are those children supposed to feel? And how are their parents supposed to feel?

It's devastating, let me tell you.

Here's how social dynamics often work with children. The group wonders if so-and-so eats weird food for lunch. A powerful child comments on it. Everyone else piles on, hoping to curry favor with the popular child. Pretty soon, the kid with the "weird" lunch is sitting alone at recess, counting down the minutes until it's over.

It can happen over anything. A child doesn't wear the right shoes. His voice is too loud. Her teeth look funny. He likes things that girls like. Pick a difference, any difference.

With one of my children, the powerful girl in their group of four friends convinced the others--in second grade--to ditch my daughter at recess. They told her they weren't playing together, and that she could just go off into another corner of the playground.

"They said it with smiles on their faces," my daughter, then seven, told me.

That night, I invited the ringleader of that cruelty exercise over to a playdate. I wanted to watch how she and my daughter interacted, to see if there was anything I could help my daughter manage better. I also wanted to show her how fun, funny, and creative my child is. I wanted to support what could have been a friendship.

The mother said no. "It's complicated," she said. "I'm sure you understand."

I do understand that these things are complicated. I understand that not all children will want to play together at first. But learning to get along with others, to find what is interesting and special about each person, is a fundamental life skill. Being kind to others is absolutely vital.

And it makes me sick that so many mothers are giving their child the choice to opt out of kindness. They are wrong. Terribly wrong. This is why there is so much unkindness at school, and so much bullying. We are giving our kids the choice to reject other people.

If you want your kids to have more choices, take them to the library or bookstore and tell them they can read whatever they want. Let them choose what the family is having for dinner. Let them help prepare it. Let them choose which person they're going to be kind to.

But for crying out loud, don't make it seem like rejecting another child's friendly overtures is some sort of noble or enlightened choice. It's not. It's mean and selfish. Unless there are safety issues, it's a way to send a message to your child that you don't have to care about anyone unless it's an easy thing for you to do.

Loving other people isn't always easy. But if we don't teach our kids how to love--or at least respect--their fellow human beings when they are small, they will never learn this.

If you want to create a world where kindness is the rule, this is a good place to start. I have a much better understanding, though, of why the playground has turned into such a difficult place for so many children. We parents are letting this happen.

I love my girl

This is the face of a child who's been rejected. This is the girl who told her sister this week, "My soul is broken."

As beautiful as the face is, her heart is even more beautiful. She would give you the last dollar in her piggy bank if she thought you needed it.

The kids who exclude her and say unkind things are missing out on a great deal. They're also enabled by their parents.

I know we're all doing our best here, and that balancing a job and family and all those other things is difficult. On this, though, I hope people rethink their knee-jerk response.

Don't make it easy for your children to be unkind. Inspire them to look below the surface and discover something lovable about someone who challenges them. Teach them to be the kids who make the world a safer, gentler place for others. If this is what we want the future to be, it's our job to make that happen.





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Reader Comments (45)

A really moving entry, Martha. Thank you for sharing your broken heart on this topic. My heart breaks too with your sweet girl's.
October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Watson
I'm sorry about this. Hugs to you and your daughter. I hope this sparks waves of kindness all over.
October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly Blaisdell
Thank you, Martha. We've become a very "kid-centric" culture, and they're being given waaay too much power. And kids, just like anyone else, wiill abuse power. The social terrorist issues didn't exist with my son, but they did with my daughter. And I DID force her to go to parties and such. But I always stuck around to view the dynamic...ready to pull her if things got bad. But, you know, they never did, and she doesn't regret going to any of those parties or playdates. And I don't regret pushing. It's our job as parents to socialize our kids - whether they like it or not. And expecting it to happen nicely on the schoolyard ain't happenin'. Step up and stand up to your kids. Be the ADULTS, people.
October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMerilee
Thanks, Amy and Molly.

Merilee, I don't have a son, but I think there might be different dynamics for boys and girls--at least to a certain extent. Girls seem to want to consolidate power, and often, they pick a sacrificial lamb to use for this. Not only does the lamb give them something to unify the others around (did you *see* what she was *wearing*?), but she also serves as a warning to anyone who would step out of control.

We do have to socialize our children and it's harder when parents don't seem to agree on the basic value of being kind to other children, even when you don't want to--and even when it might cost you socially (or more likely, when you perceive it will).

This is why popularity can be such a toxic aspiration. It's nice to be liked, of course. But when the fear of being disliked causes you to reject the unpopular kids or distance yourself from them, and when it causes you to do things you otherwise wouldn't, it's a problem. It's also a problem when you abandon things you love or aspects of your personality just to fit in. It's important for people to follow social norms, of course. But it doesn't mean we have to turn into clones, and that's what seems to happen to little girls.

When we expect our kids to be kind, no matter what, we give them something else to think about besides their own social status. I've never regretted being kind to anyone. I have regretted the times I wasn't.
October 16, 2010 | Registered Commentermartha brockenbrough
And the whole "popular" thing has gotten out of hand because it isn't just a result anymore. It's not something to be achieved by being thoughtful, or considerate, or kind. It's a means to an end...and if you need a "sacrificial lamb" to get there, well, just use one. Anyone. Same thing with all the kids who want to be "famous" now. The things they'll do to get their names/faces out there, it's pretty deplorable. Where are the parents who are supposed to say "Stop!"?

You're definitely right about the social structure being different with boys. My son did get teased some when he was little - he was a "chunky" kid - be never to the extent I saw with my daughter. Girls are merciless in their meanness.

All we can do as parents is fight back to the best of our abilities. I found going outside our school for a social network to be very successful with my daughter. And I guess it worked. She's a college-boumd senior, straight A student with a strong circle of friends and a fabulous sense of self. I've had adults tell me they wished THEY were that comfortable in their own skin at 17. The mean girls can be fought...but it ain't easy!
October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMerilee
Martha, this is beautiful. Thank you so much for taking her story and making it into an example for others and for holding someone accountable! It broke my heart when I heard about what happened and I think someone needed to share this. Thank you. You're an amazing mother (and cousin).
October 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIzy
"I've never regretted being kind to anyone. I have regretted the times I wasn't. "
AMEN, sister. I was often teased growing up, so when someone else was, for once, the target, I did nothing to help. I was just relieved it wasn't me for a change. I never helped defend someone, even though I knew all too well how painful what they were experiencing could be.
I seriously regret things like that. I wish I'd been a better person in that way, even at age 10. *sigh*

I don't have children, but if/when I do, I hope I remember your advice. Kids can be so cruel...but their capacity for kindness and compassion is also often the greatest it can ever be in their lives. Adults in parenting or mentoring roles should definitely help them cultivate these virtues before too many walls/prejudices get in the way.

Anyway. Thank you for this post. :)
October 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiana
I was that kid who invited the whole class to a birthday party. My mother reserved a place at a local Jungle O' Fun (I wanted so badly to impress my 'friends' that I demanded it). Three people showed up. One left early because he told his mom he was bored because none of his friends were there. It's heartbreaking. And that social stigma stays with you as you get older. Once you're labeled, it's nearly impossible to rid yourself of it. It made high school incredibly difficult. For those four years I knew more misery than I could have ever imagined. Interestingly enough, I'm now in college and studying to teach high school English. We've been discussing the importance of peer inclusion in my Educational Psych class, but focusing more on the classroom experience as it's what we, as teachers, can control. But I'll definitely have to bring this up. I think it would benefit a lot of us, not only as educators but also future parents. Thank you.
October 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz
Liana, sometimes we have to do the wrong thing and feel the pain of that before we know what the right thing to do is. It's normal for a child to want to protect herself. It's such a lesson in compassion we learn when we have to live with our imperfections.

Liz, how horrible that you had such a disappointing birthday. And I know what you mean about those labels. I think it is how kids make sense of the world, but no one likes to be limited to a label applied by others. Even if it's a good label. You'll make an excellent teacher, no doubt. The most important things people learn in the classroom are how to get along with others, and how to keep believing in yourself even in difficult times. You'll teach that well.
October 17, 2010 | Registered Commentermartha brockenbrough
Thank you for this, Martha. It hurts to read but nonetheless is so beautiful. Thanks.

I was shy and moved a lot as a kid, and I've always been slow to make friends, so it was always exciting to me when somebody invited the whole class to their birthday party. It meant I was invited.
October 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKjersten
Every time you talk about your kids and how you're raising them, I want to hug your entire family, because you're doing so many wonderful things for those young ladies.
October 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLittle Willow
Wonderful, insightful post. It also makes me think about how girls (and women) generally are not taught the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Learning how to choose kindness as a way of life definitely would require one to practice assertiveness. Your daughter is lucky to have a wise mother.
October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElaine
This is a lovely post. It really touched a nerve for me, since my DD just experienced something similar. A "popular" girl in her class rsvp'd yes to a party, then changed her mind so that she could go to the party of another girl who sent out invitations several days later to another party scheduled for the same time.

In our family, we follow the rule of staying with the first invitation we accept, even if a 'better' invitation comes along. We think that this rule teaches our children something important about being responsible to others and keeping ones word, because to do otherwise is just plain selfish.
October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymom
This is my rule about events, and especially parties: "The important thing is to SHOW UP."

Also, there was just an article in the NY Times about bullying among young children.
October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCathy
Thank you! It brought some bad memories and also some hope on people.
October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPablo Barcenas
You rock, Martha! Thanks for presenting these important ideas in such a moving way. This is food for thought for all of us...
October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatti Burke
Thank you so much for this post. I used to be that "excluded kid" and have tried so hard from the beginning to teach my daughter about kindness, inclusion and finding something special in everyone. I was so shocked, saddened and bewildered however, when starting in preschool, I'd hear from teachers that my daughter had been bossy or unkind to a kid. There were many tough dynamics in Kindergarten and first grade that involved other "strong" girls too, but my daughter still doled out her share of bossiness and hurtful comments.

What's baffling is that she is very socially aware and astute, she cares a lot about people and animals and goes out of her way to help a friend! I cannot understand this dichotomy in one child! I've had many conversations with her about it but it seems to still be a problem. I sometimes wonder if being an only child has something to do with it. What's sad is she doesn't realize that's probably why there aren't too many offers for playdates and her requests get turned down often. I'm at a loss and wish I knew how to help her be a better friend, a better person.
October 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercathy
Martha, you are a wonderful parent and your little girls lucky to have such wise and loving mother. Hang in there and I hope it gets better for you both.
October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie
Wow, I never thought about it that way before. Thank you for your article.
October 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA
Hi, I have a daughter who is 11. I am the mother who invited the whole class not to hurt anyone's feelings. I always expected around 5/6 and that's about how many showed up. Many times, my daughter was the popular one and many others she was the one left out. I forced her to go to other parties and one time had to pick her up because she was the "one" left out at the party. Being Kind is not an option, and I believe that should be taught but it's also very important to teach and EMPOWER your child to find friends that treat her right. Just having kids show up isn't the answer - the real answer is making your daughter feel totally OK with herself. I think by empowering your child with what she has to offer and reminding her Friendship and LOVE (in a few more years) doesn't HURT! If someone isn't being nice, they really aren't worthy of being her friend and she doesn't need to be around them. You and your daugther can't make anyone act RIGHT - so we can only control how we handle rejection, being alone and being true to ourself. It's a great lesson for her to learn at such an early age and she'll be way ahead of the group during the Middle School years. Hang in there - it really does all work out and with the love she has from you - she'll soar!!
October 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCathy
Just yesterday after a parent/teacher conference, I was thinking about writing an essay about how to teach our children the importance of being nice (just as we teach them to dress nice to look beautiful in the outside, how to teach them to be nice people, to be beautiful in the inside).
We need to remind them to "wear the shoes" of others when they have been rejected or "teased" (feel empathy), and how being nice is a responsibility we are all accountable for. --Certainly we need to put a STOP when our daughters are mean, and we also need to help them be confident and build their self-esteem so they don't feel so bad when they are the target.
The teacher of my daughter told me, "it is a girl's thing"... well, I think it is also a parents thing. We know better, and we need to make things right for our daughters. I shared the article with her, and I posted it in my FB.
Thank you for the article, and for all the comments in your blog! They are great!
October 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMom of 2
I have to ask the obvious question - how do we expect our girls to learn to be kind and unsuperficial and seeking of a deeper beauty in the young girls around them when we feed them on a steady diet of vain, sarcastic, superficial and MEAN media “role models” and encourage them, through the purchase of related products, to idolize these girls – dress like them, talk like them, sing their songs etc.

It’s like berating a child for being overweight and then giving her Twinkles and Coke for lunch.

I hear things come out of young girls’ mouths that is not native to the 8 year old brain. It’s coming right out of the media we encourage them to consume and they are simply not old enough to appreciate the hurtful and disrespectful power it carries.

Can't we all stop and examine what mixed messages we might be sending our girls through the media we allow them to absorb before we simply ask them to be nice?
October 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLC
I think it still can be complicated though. Take my son's bully for example. He is mean to my son. Mostly it's just verbal, but sometimes he does hit. On one hand, I do recognize that this child probably has some reason behind his behavior. I mean he's 6, it's not all on him at this age. I do encourage my son to still be nice to him, and when this boy is having a bad day and is upset, my son is going be right there telling him that it's gonna be okay and giving him a hug. I just don't know how comfortable I'd feel sending my son over for a birthday party. Because while I do want to encourage him to be nice to everyone, I would be honestly shocked if I didn't hear "Mom, guess what Boy said to me?" or "Mom, Boy hit me" or any other variation at some point. I'm okay with saying there comes a point where I feel like my kid should be able to say no, I don't want to keep trying to be his friend because he's always mean to me. But then I think about this boy that doesn't have any friends in the class, and yeah, it's complicated.
October 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole
This sorta gets back to one of my big problems with many parents these days: Yes, it is our job to want a better life for our children than we had - in every way possible...
But "better" does not equal "easier." In fact, by making your child's life easier, allowing him/her to opt out of awkward situations, making sure he/she never has to walk too far, etc., we're making their lives worse, not better.
Hardships, uncomfortableness, boredom, difficulty - these things (in safe measure) are things to be experienced and dealt with, not avoided. Children need to understand (repeatedly) that actions (or inactions), be they good or bad, do have consequences. They need to learn by experience while the "cost" of those experiences is still very cheap. The cost of mistreating friends, neglecting duties, or devaluing prized possesions is far, far greater - and the learning even more painful - if kids don't experience those self-taught lessons early on.
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRob O.
I have to disagree. I was the avoided kid in school. Kids were originally not allowed to play at my house for safety reasons. It created a situation where I didn't fit in. Some parents would force their kids to invite me to events. But, even in second grade, I knew it was charity invites. My mom forced me to go. And then there was the final straw: I was invited to a party and it was clearly stated that there was "one person" who was not welcome. Everyone knew it was me. As calmly as I could I returned to the house and pleaded to be picked up. When that failed I went back and tried to pretend I was oblivious. I stopped telling my mom about invitations after that.

Forcing, or even just strongly suggesting, your kid play with someone else or go to a party they don't want to go to only increases the "otherness" of the kid. I eventually found friends who liked me for me, not because they were forced to pretend, and before that happened I was much happier playing on my own, with my siblings, or with the kids down the street who went to a different school.

Childhood wasn't gentle for my siblings and me. But we had a much easier time handling it when the tough bits weren't glossed over. And a second- or third-grader trying to hide her contempt for me was about as poorly glossed as one could get.
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne

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