Has your child ever come home with tears in their eyes and a story about a complicated situation that took place on the playground? Have you ever wondered what on earth is the best advice to give them?
Playground politics is a real thing, and it can be a fierce and difficult environment to navigate with social nuances, sarcasm, and the real struggle of not only making, but keeping friends. Most elementary school curricula don’t teach social skills as part of the general education program. However, I strongly wish they would!
First and foremost, it is important to teach your children that friendships are built on common interests. This means that the group that seems so “cool” to your child may not be a great fit for them if they don’t actually have anything in common. Having common interests means that your friendship will have things to build from—and it can be used as a great way to find friends!
Encourage your student to listen to their peers. If your child likes Pokémon, do they notice someone in class talking about, doodling, or wearing Pokémon clothing? Perhaps your child is learning to play the drums. They could listen for other students talking about their instruments.
You can also look for extracurricular activities that cater to your child’s interests. Have them choose a club or a sports team to join. This is a great way to find peers with common interests because the club or sport itself is set up to provide just that. If there is not an option that your child is interested in, approach the school counselors or administrators and ask about the process for starting a club about one of your child’s interests!
This is a tough one. At some point, usually around third grade, it is no longer okay to walk up to a random child and say, “Do you want to be friends? Let’s play together!” Cliques begin to form, and children start to get judgmental about social situations. Instead, use common interests as a way to help your child join conversations with groups of peers that are likely to be more accepting. Coach your student to follow steps such as these:
- Listen in on others’ conversations. If you hear them talking about a common interest, that is a good sign that you can easily join the conversation. (Let’s use kickball as our example here.)
- Join in using the common interest. Now that you have heard your peers talking about starting a kickball game, you can use that as your way into the conversation or game. Practice with your child how to eloquently join the conversation with phrases such as, “Hey, guys! I heard you were about to start a kickball game. I love kickball, and I think I could help even out the teams.”
- Hopefully that goes well and everyone becomes besties. But, that does not always happen. Prepare your child for possible rejection. If this happens, it just downright sucks—there is no denying it. However, when children try to fight the rejection, that is where a LOT of the issues with playground politics begin. Practice saying things like, “Okay, maybe next time.” Or, “Well, thanks for considering it. Let me know if you change your minds.” And then tell your child that it is time to walk away. Trust me on this one, fighting it just makes it worse.
Some of the “Don’ts” of Playground Politics
As mentioned above, sometimes our children desperately want to join a game or a group, and they are simply not accepted. In my experience as a teacher, this is where a lot of playground issues arise. Talk with your child about some of the things that can make a problem bigger:
- Don’t police others. My four-year-old loves to do this, and we are working hard on learning why it is not okay. No one likes to be told what to do—including kids. If our children are always telling others they are playing a game incorrectly, not following the rules, or not being nice by letting everyone play with them, they are likely opening themselves up to more rejection. Other children will find this annoying. It may seem harsh to explain to children that they can annoy others, but it is important to help our children understand what not to do.
- Don’t tattle. This is another social skill that seems to change big-time around third grade. Younger children tattle on each other all the time, and it is developmentally appropriate. However, it is important to eventually teach your children that there are times to involve an adult and times when you should walk away. Obviously, if there is bullying or danger, a child should always seek an adult. However, going to the teacher to tell on the group of kids who did not want to play with your child *could* lead that group to feel resentful, and thus be even further from accepting your child into their clique.
- Don’t forget to let others choose. Children often like to be the leader, the one making up the rules of a game, or the one who decides what to play next. One skill that is rarely taught is that sometimes we have to allow others to make the decisions. This is a critical skill for keeping friends. Encouraging them to set up a “turn-taking” system where they rotate through who decides what to play is a great way to help with this.
Playground politics can be stressful for everyone in the family. If a situation seems to continue to upset your child, it might be a good idea to reach out to your child’s teacher or counselor. They might be able to assist your child in finding peers with common interests, and they might even be able to set up lunch groups or situations where they can help facilitate conversations to build friendships.