I wrote recently about my daughter now being a young girl, and how that comes with its own problems. She has a group of friends these days, and they have fun together, but they also fight. That brings a number of parental challenges.
Last week, my daughter went on a play date after school with two of her friends. At the end of the afternoon, I came to pick her up. I immediately got the sense something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was going on, though. She said a hasty goodbye, barely looking at her friends.
So, when I was outside, I asked her ‘is something wrong? Didn’t you have fun?” and my daughter burst into tears. I picked her up and hugged her, and in between tears she explained that her two friends had been whispering behind her back all afternoon, and shutting her out.
This single event highlights three struggles I have as a parent.
Who is at fault?
I generally try to be supportive of my daughter. I acknowledge that her point of view is valid, and assume she is not lying. But… I’ve also come to take things she says with a grain of salt. She doesn’t actively lie, but what my daughter sees is colored. In writing terms, she’s an unreliable narrator. A very unreliable narrator.
To illustrate what I mean, let me give an example. One day last winter, I picked her up at afterschool care, and she no longer had her mittens. The response to my “when did you last have them?” was “Oh, they’re in my bag.” Nope. “Wait, they’re in the cart, outside!” The electric cart the afterschool care uses to drive children from school was empty. “Wait, I…” This went on for a while. The next day, I located them in the bushes at school where she’d dropped them when playing outside. Which was explanation number four or five. I love my daughter, but she can very convincingly tell me a lot of bullshit. Not on purpose, but bullshit nonetheless.
When she says her friends were mean to her, I acknowledge that, but also start probing. What are the details? Was it one incident, or a pattern? What had my daughter been doing. In this case, they’d apparently been mean all afternoon, and when three girls play and two start whispering behind the third’s back, yeah, that’s not okay.
My point is: it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. Children can be brutal to each other, and they are also very capable of magnifying what was done to them but forgetting they’d been just as bad a minute before. Lord of the Flies is — thankfully — not what happens in the real world when children are stranded on a deserted island, but it still rings more true than we’d like.
When you’re not there to see what was going on, it’s best to be very carefully about assuming you know what was actually happened.
When to wade in?
We have playdates at our house regularly. My daughter is more popular at school than I was, and she’d like to play with her friends every day if she could, where I used to like being at home and doing my own thing.
When there are children in our house, stuff like what I described in the previous section comes up. The question is: when should you act?
On the one hand, you want to ensure everybody is happy. However: a part of growing up is learning how to handle social situations yourself. Your parents won’t be there to help you when you’re hanging with friends in college. Or at your first job. My daughter needs to figure out how she handles people being mean to her. She also needs to learn not to be mean to others. Children want to have their own way all the time, And since she’s an only child, with no brothers or sisters around, she often does. Meaning we need to be extra careful to teach her that she can’t always get what she wants.
So there’s this fine line to thread. You need to let things go so these children can learn how to be social, but you can’t let it get out of hand. I don’t want children leaving here crying — well, except maybe because it’s so much fun they don’t want to leave.
In the case of the playdate I described, I think one of the problems was that the mother of my daughter’s friend doesn’t speak Dutch. How hard must this be when you can’t understand what these girls are saying part of the time.
The third dilemma is: should you say something to the parents — or children — afterwards? You might be wondering: why wouldn’t you? Well, because it’s a form of criticism. Giving feedback to people is hard to do well, and in this case, you’re criticizing somebody about an event you weren’t present for, told to you by an unreliable narrator, who may have actually been the source of the problem.
Often, it’s easier to just let it go. It saves energy and reduces conflict. I try to help my daughter understand, and try to teach her how to handle things in the future, then let it go. Is that good parenting? I don’t know. I do know that correcting behavior only works when the correction is not too long after the event. Then again, you don’t want things to escalate over time either, or give a signal that you should let people walk over you.
In this case, my wife did bring it up in conversation the next day, when speaking to the other parents in the school yard. When your daughter comes home crying, you don’t want that to fester. The result was that my daughter’s friend was forced to apologize. Was that a good result? Maybe. I think it was good that my daughter learned you can talk about conflicts like this. On the other hand, getting mad at a child and forcing them to apologize a day after the fact… I don’t know if that teaches better behavior, or teaches them only that they should fake an apology when their parents get angry.
Social interaction between young children is a minefield. Lord of the flies paints a grim picture of children, but it’s not dead wrong. Sometimes I look at my daughter and her friends and do think they’re playing lady of the flies.
Luckily, as a parent, you can intervene before they really start damaging each other. The question is: when is that damage imminent, and when should you just sit back and let it go?