DEAR CAROLYN: My 10-year-old daughter has a very lively and kind spirit. She isn’t afraid to ask her classmates to play with her or if she may sit next to them. She can easily ask to join a conversation.
But many of the girls are not very nice and make fun of her eagerness. They exclude her almost like a game. I am at a loss how to help her. She has a counselor who wants her to try to interact and learn how to network. I am not sure I see the value in that when the kids are so mean. Wouldn’t it be better to read a book than try and assimilate with kids that don’t like you?
DEAR S.: If she were an adult, maybe, or annoyed just by one or two peers.
But you’ve got a child in her formative years with a systemic problem. It’s learn now or risk isolation later, when it will be harder for her both to learn new habits and find groups of peers to learn on.
Watching a child get shunned is agony. Your protectiveness is understandable. However, you need to keep that instinct in balance with the parental imperative to accept measured risk as necessary for children to learn skills they'll need as adults.
In this case, yes, heed the therapist on trying to assimilate – but deploy safeguards first to protect her from and reinforce her against the effects of the meanest kids.
Start by asking her to figure out which classmates are kindest to her. Her teachers can be a huge help here. There’s nothing wrong with shopping for a sympathetic audience – in fact, reading one’s welcome is a crucial skill.
And, role-play with her. Practice not only ways she can approach peers – tempering vs. ingratiating herself – but also ways to extract herself from encounters gone wrong. If anything, that’s more fraught, since there’s a blood-in-the-water nature to groups of young kids.
And, consider supplementing the one-on-one counseling with a social-skills group or summer camp. If her therapist doesn’t know of one, ask the counselor at your daughter’s school, or call a local provider of occupational/speech/physical therapy for kids.
Finally, but most important: Set her up for some successes. Little savages that they are, kids discern quickly who does and doesn’t have power. When you’re the parent of a child who lacks natural playground cred, the greatest gift you can give is to figure out where your child’s gifts do have value. So your artistic soul joins an art class or dance or theater group; your dynamo plays a high-energy sport; your tinkerer takes robotics or joins a scout group; your intense thinker takes martial arts; etc. There are many pitfalls to our child-is-king culture right now, but this is one of the upsides. If your kid shows an affinity for X, chances are excellent there’s a youth X club or travel X league or X camp ready to welcome your child (and your cash, alas – due diligence required).
As long as you choose responsibly, this can be where your daughter is, if not the queen of the X club, at least an accepted, middle-of-the-pack player. Voila, a safe(r) place for her to practice her social moves – and a place to recover from the school of mean.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.