As a teacher, it breaks your heart watching the politics of friendship play out. Children, without even trying, can be really cruel. You see perfectly lovely, funny and children I would love to call my own, struggle to make friends. Especially when friendship groups have already been established. The older the children get, the more difficult it is as you really can’t do much to help them. Now I’m a parent, I’m seeing it from the other perspective.
My daughter has been very lucky (as have I). She has brilliant cousins who love her and will happily play with her, even though they are older and she really doesn’t understand their games. They are patient with her, often modifying the ‘rules’ for her so she can participate. They get that if they want to take the toy she has, or that essential Lego piece that will complete their battleship, they need to trade it for another toy she’d be happy with. Little Miss’s cousins are wonderful. So too are the children (and mothers) in the mother’s group we had in Sydney. As much as I knew those children were great, I think I still took it for granted. They all got along so well, probably because they grew up together… And all the mums are quite relaxed and we all ‘parent’ each others child – it takes a village to raise a child after all!
Since moving, my husband and I have been gradually meeting new people and making friends. Last week I went to the local playgroup. It was so nice to meet other mums in the area. They were all so lovely and easy going. However my gorgeous, kind hearted, eager to please and in need of being loved daughter didn’t find the morning as lovely. Initially she was quite happy playing by herself. Hey, there was a slippery dip! She was in heaven. But after a while, being the social creature she is, she wanted to play with the other children. Now, possibly like my mothers group back in Sydney, these children had grown up together. They knew each other really well. There also weren’t many children near her age. There was a little girl possibly two years older, and two boys probably a year older. The rest were babies. So Little Miss set her sights on playing with the two boys. Unfortunately they weren’t so eager to play with her… Or let her play with any of the toys they were remotely interested in. You know how it goes – the whole, ‘I didn’t know I wanted it until you had it, now it’s mine’ scenario. My gorgeous little girl just didn’t know how to handle this. Initially I just watched, curious to see what she’d do. This is after all, much closer to the reality of life than what she’d been used to. She stood puzzled for a while, as they took toys from her, or blocked her from getting on the see-saw. Then she tried to assert herself with a confident, “Me turn.” But they ignored her. After a few valiant attempts she came tearfully up to me with her account, “Boys first, now me turn. Boy no play. Me turn.” Awww. My little girl had now been plunged into a world of negotiating relationships and turn taking that she will probably battle with for at least a few decades yet. Holding myself back from running over to ‘fix things’ I told her to go to the see-saw and wait. When one of the boys gets off, just get on, don’t wait. So my gorgeous little girl did just that. Se waited them out and eventually one little boy got off. As Little Miss negotiated how to get her leg over, the little boy realized that his friend hadn’t followed, so of course he still wanted to play on the see-saw with him. He gently gave Little Miss a ‘helpful hand’ off the see-saw, informing her it was his. No surprise, Little Miss turned and looked at me all forlorn with a look that said, “I did what you said and it didn’t work.” Awww. I felt terrible for her.
Now it’s at this point I must make a confession.
Having been a teacher for a lot longer than I’ve been a mum, I’ve seen too many times how detrimental it can be when parents fight their children’s battles for them. Their children seem to lose all confidence in their ability to problem solve and negotiate situations by themselves, often calling on the teacher to intervene when their parent is absent. Not really ever learning the social skills that I believe are important for life. How will you negotiate in a board room if you’ve never learnt the delicate art of negotiating who’s ‘it’ in a game of tips, or how to keep the peace in a game of schoolyard soccer – was it a foul or just a harmless trip?? So in the past, as I learnt to be a parent, sometimes I’ve stood back when I should’ve intervened for my daughter. After all, children need to be taught how to share and negotiate compromises, in the same way we need to teach them other life skills. Of ourselves they observe us, but when it comes to the intricate art of negotiating in the playground, there is a steep learning curve and some of the skills are so subtle they need to be modeled or at least clearly articulated.
Keeping all that in mind, I decided to engage in some ‘teaching’. Honestly it was a lot of, “How much fun is the see-saw!”, “Is everybody allowed to play on the see-saw?”, “Fantastic. You let me know when it’s Little Miss’ turn so I can help her on.”
A little while later nobody was budging. Time for plan B. I just put Little Miss in the middle. I knew she wouldn’t care where she was, as long as she was involved. She had a blast. Didn’t go over so well well with one of the boys, who convinced the other boy to leave with him. Now you and I both know it takes two to see-saw… and it didn’t take Little Miss long to work that out either. She turned to me, crestfallen with that forlorn look again. That look that just breaks your heart because you know you can’t wrap you little girl in cotton wool and protect her from all that is mean and nasty in the world.
So I brought out the big guns. Time for the ever reliable, always happy to play – our little man! Little Miss on one end and her little brother on the other. With help from my foot, I had them rocking that see-saw sky high. Well as high as a teeny, tiny see-saw would go. Squeals of laughter and giggles.
Now I know in time, those lovely little boys (and they were lovely) will come to see how wonderful my daughter is and will be happy to play with her. But in the meantime, how do I explain to a two year old that it takes time to build relationships? That she will need to persist and in time they will see her for the wonderful person that she is? My little girl is just growing up way too fast.