Children pick and choose play partners. Their willingness to meet and play with other kids is not necessarily hampered by whether they know these kids. Play groups form naturally whereever play occurs. From school yards to playgrounds, children’s play is critical for practicing how to get along with others, how to make friends, and really just how to keep on keepin’ on.
A Girl Rejected. This weekend while at a birthday party, my three year old daughter, eager to play with kids as usual, climbed up a small backyard slide with a deck and stood politely among three older children (between the ages of 5 and 9). I was sitting alone at a table nearby for the purpose of keeping an eye on her. Though I was about 15 feet away, I could tell by her solemn face and stiff body that they were not having a friendly interaction. As the older kids shooed her away, Greysen stood wide-eyed and unsure, but steady.
I had to decide right there, should I come closer or stay out of it? Having intervened with this group of children at a previous birthday party in July, I was familiar with their routine of “get away kid, you’re bothering me.” The other thing I kept in mind was that while they were older than my daughter, they were children too.
The last time they asked her to leave, my daughter stood alongside her cousin, and together they played through the group of older children, not taking much notice of their dismissive ways. By my moving in closer, the children quieted, and my daughter and her cousin naturally moved away.
This time was different. My daughter stood alone and was acutely aware of their feelings.
As the children continued to speak, my daughter turned to me. I nodded and said, you can tell them, “No, I’m playing here.” Perhaps there were savvier words that I could have suggested, but that’s what I went with. Fueled by my encouragement, she turned to them and said so confidently. The kids regrouped and talked some more. She stood waiting to get access to the slide, but now she was gripping the side of the structure. She looked at me while they spoke. Her face didn’t seem alarmed or hurt, but rather unsure. I stayed where I was, focused and available should she seem to need me. She looked back to the children and continued to wait. Within moments they spoke to her again and she responded to them again, this time with more determination -“NO.”
She wasn’t looking to me to be rescued, but rather for reassurance. So, despite the ache I was feeling for my daughter who was being told to leave, I stayed put waiting for her to indicate she needed more from me than she was getting.
The children spoke some more amongst themselves before one moved positions, climbing down. This spurred movement amongst all the children, and my daughter took this opportunity to slide down the slide.
She jaunted over to see me. I sat and waited, swallowing my urge to ask whether she was ok, and what did they say, etc.
As she twisted her leg to free her foot from her boot, she had three things to tell me:
1. Those kids were telling me to go away.
2. I’m going to play in the jumphouse now.
3. Can I have a red sugar candy?
I leaned down for a hug and held her for just the briefest moment, in which I felt a sting of the idea that there will be a time where I will not be there when she faces rejection. She may not have me, but she will have had this experience.
Had I walked over to intervene, I could have spared Greysen two more instances of confrontation. I could have even possibility facilitated some play. There was a remote chance that I could have even helped her gain entry into their play.
Had I intervened, I could have taken over all those children’s play. I could have taken Greysen’s opportunity to stand up for herself, to bolster her tenacity, to negotiate, and to really listen to when she needs help and when she doesn’t.
The need to process and analyze may not be their need, but ours. At that moment, I chose to trust my daughter and our relationship. I gave her permission to take the lead of her emotional development since it was a manageable instance, and to not ask her to placate me with details.
What purpose would those questions have served other than to reassure me? When she has questions, she asks them. When she is upset, she cries. If she needed to talk, she would have.
That was that for her. Thus, that was that for me.