“Go on,” urged the mom of the little girl. About four, she was hanging back at the edge of a play centre, eyeing the kids at the water table. “Just say, ‘Can I play too?’”
Finally she got up the courage ask to be part of the fun. “No!” answered a little boy roundly, scooping up the last floating dinosaur to underline his point. “Nobody else!”
It’s the kind of rejection nobody wants their child to experience — or dish out — but the reality is that by four or five, children don’t want to play with everybody, and they can be brutally honest about it.
Jan Gaudet, parenting program assistant with the Ontario Early Years Centre in London, Ont., and Heidi Morrison, director of Apple Tree Preschool in Calgary, offer some tips on how to coach preschoolers through the niceties of picking playmates.
Coaching the rejector
Don’t overreact. Preschoolers are learning to understand others’ feelings — indeed, they’re still learning basic social skills — so don’t make your child feel bad, says Gaudet. “He’s not trying to be nasty.”
Set a positive expectation. In a situation, such as a birthday party or playgroup, where everyone should be included, you can coach your child ahead of time and let him know that he will be expected to share and play with others.
And if you do hear him rejecting another child, you can step in to gently redirect, suggests Gaudet. “You might say, ‘We’re all sharing the toys here — you can have this piece and John can play with that one.’ Some-times it just takes the parent joining in for a short period of time to initiate that acceptance.”
Help kids understand others’ feelings. The development of empathy — understanding how things feel to another person — is just beginning at this stage. So the concept of “hurting somebody’s feelings” is not that easy for kids to grasp. This is something to work on as the opportunity comes up in daily life: When you observe a child crying in the mall or when reading a story or watching a DVD, talk about how the person feels and the importance of being gentle with others.
Teach him a nice way to say no. Grown-ups don’t necessarily like or want to socialize with everyone, points out Morrison, and neither do children. “Some personalities are just like oil and water. By about four, children get to know who they are likely to have fun with. They are going to search out somebody who is of like personality.”
Sometimes, too, you just want to play a special game with your best friend. At Morrison’s preschool, they respect the children’s right to choose their playmates, but also teach them how to decline with courtesy, using words like “Not right now, but maybe a bit later.”
Helping the rejectee
Don’t set her up for a fall. Morrison says that parents often coach their child to go up to a group of kids and say, “Can I play with you?” We assume the other kids will say yes. “But children don’t do that!” she says. If you suggest this tactic, prepare your child for both possible outcomes, saying something like “If he says no, that’s OK. We’ll find something else to do.”
Morrison suggests teaching kids a different approach altogether: Watch, listen and join in when appropriate — a child version of what adults do at a party.
Soften the blow. It’s not that we want to force that other child to play with ours (OK, we might, but we know we can’t!). We just don’t want our child crushed by the rejection. So help her interpret that resounding NO, suggests Morrison. “You can say, ‘He didn’t quite know how to say that nicely. What he meant was he wants to be on his own right now. He might play with you a little bit later.’”
Acknowledge feelings. “The parent needs to recognize if the child is feeling sad,” says Gaudet. “But always offer something positive along with it. For example, maybe tomorrow he can play with that child at the park. Help him realize that he’s not always going to be excluded.”
If it’s a pattern, try to set up positive play experiences. Everyone gets shut out at times. But if your child seems to have trouble connecting with other children, talk to his daycare provider or teacher and see if you can work together to give his social life a boost. Maybe there’s a child who seems a good fit that you can invite to your home for a playdate or special outing.