A really interesting situation came up this week that had me realising how much more internal work I have to do to unpack my own experiences and expectations, particularly around gender and relationships.
It is seriously freezing here. Actually about twenty degrees below freezing. We have been hitting up a lot of indoor play spaces each week so that everyone can move their bodies. We were at one of these places yesterday and my daughter met a little boy. She said, ‘I wonder if he wants to be my friend?’ And off she ran to find out. They happily played for half an hour or so, going up and down the slides, running about the place.
He was a sweet, energetic little boy. Like a happy little puppy, bounding around, getting very close, talking excitedly and non-stop.
They played a few arcade games together and the boy went off with his mum to choose his prize. He chose a small jar of slime for himself, and one for my daughter. It was kind and considerate and he eagerly ran over to give it to her.
He proudly presented it to my daughter and she said ‘thanks.’ His mum was standing behind him smiling, no doubt admiring her son being such a thoughtful person.
Then my daughter said, in her typical four-year-old, full-volume and uninhibited way, ‘mum, I don’t want to be his friend anymore.’
I froze. I felt the weight of expectation in that moment. The boy standing there in anticipation, wanting her approval. The mother wanting his kind deed to be noticed.
And so I said ‘you sound like you need a bit of space right now.’
I was desperately hoping she would agree with this wording so that the possibility of rekindling a bit later on might hang in the air and diffuse the tension. It feels kind of gross to write that, but it is the truth.
Instead, she said, ‘no I don’t want space. I don’t want to play with him again. Ever.’
She looked up at me. I saw her confident eyes. She wanted to know that it was ok.
And it clicked for me.
I said, ‘you don’t have to spend time or play with anyone that you don’t want to. Would you like to go down the slide with me?’
And we walked away.
And it was hard.
And I spent the rest of my time there feeling a little bit bad about that.
But this was big.
My daughter doesn’t have to spend time with any person she doesn’t want to spend time with. It doesn’t matter if I, or anyone else, thinks that person is nice and treating her well. It doesn’t matter if they shower her with gifts or affection.
The little boy made the choice to give my daughter a gift. And she decided that she still didn’t want to play with him anymore. She wanted to spend time with him, and then she changed her mind. And that is ok. Even if feelings are hurt.
It isn’t ok to spare someone’s feelings at the expense of your own ongoing discomfort. It is something I am still learning.
The awkwardness and embarrassment I felt in supporting my child felt big in the moment. And that was so important for me to recognise. I realised how conditioned I am towards the idea of women keeping the peace. To preserve the feelings of others. To not ‘make a scene.’ But I swallowed all of these ingrained reactions that were bubbling to the surface, threatening to invalidate my child’s feelings in a really predictable way. Through apology. I didn’t apologise for my daughter’s behaviour to the mother because there was nothing to apologise for. I didn’t want my daughter to think that putting in place a boundary is something to be sorry about.
My daughter used the terminology she understands. When we play we are friends, when we don’t we are not friends. She didn’t want to be friends anymore. I made steps towards making that clear boundary more ambiguous by implying it might be a temporary change of heart. I was trying to make everyone comfortable, please everyone, ‘be nice.’ She responded by making sure it was very clear to everyone how she felt. This was a permanent arrangement. She wasn’t being mean or rude or unfair or any other ridiculous judgement you could put on a girl advocating for herself and being direct in placing her boundary.
If I teach my daughter that the potential hurt feelings of a little boy trying to please her are more important than her own feelings of not wanting to spend time with that person, she will carry this. And the implications of carrying the burden of people-pleasing become much bigger when you start navigating more mature relationships.
There was an important lesson for the boy, too. Just because you really want to spend time with a person and just because you give them things, doesn’t mean they will feel the same way. Rejection is tough, but learning to process it in a healthy way is such an important skill. If I had overridden my daughter’s wish to end their relationship by saying ‘that’s not very nice, you should play with him, look how kind he has been!’, the lesson for that boy would have been that his desire to be with a girl, especially if he really, really wants her attention, is more important than her desire to be left alone. What a dangerous precedent.
Respectful parenting doesn’t always feel easy. Slowly, your children help expose each layer of your own conditioning. Reflecting on and unpacking unhealthy thought patterns is hard. But, confronting and processing these emotions is vital if we are to step in the direction of breaking a cycle. When we embrace this process, there is so much opportunity. It means that the messages we send to our children, have the potential to be a much healthier version of those we have accepted for ourselves.
These small interactions between young children might seem unimportant, but each experience becomes a puzzle piece, which over time fit together to become the big picture of how a person feels about their self worth, their ability to define their relationships and the power they hold in protecting themselves through boundaries. They are important. So important.
Respectfully, I feel like you missed the mark on this. Grace and courtesy are important life skills–it’s why they are one of the key elements of an early childhood Montessori program. You are correct in that no child should have to play with someone they don’t want to. However, the little boy was in no way rude or harsh. He enthusiastically brought his new friend a gift, and she responded by turning and walking away without so much as a thank you. A better model would have been to encourage/model thanking the boy for his politeness and then modeling how to politely say that she’s done playing for now.
I’m in no way calling you sexist, but just food for thought–do you think your reply would have differed had the other child been female rather than male?
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But she reported that her daughter did say thank you when given the gift…
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Thanks for your comment! It is always great to hear back from people who are reading, especially when they have different perspectives. It gives me so much to think about. My daughter did say thanks for the gift when it was given to her. I wrote that, but I understand these things can get lost in the bigger post.
The ideas of grace and courtesy are interesting ones here. I have replaced them with the idea of ‘being nice’ and it is at the heart of the message. Like you suggest, my first move was to try and encourage my daughter to shift her terminology. I said ‘you need some space RIGHT NOW’, you suggested ‘I’m done playing FOR NOW.’ We are conditioned to be ambiguous in our needs for the sake of preserving feelings, especially as women. In this case, I find it so interesting, because minimising my daughter’s needs by suggesting there was no finality, was sending an inaccurate and dishonest message to the boy, but as adults we see that as being more gracious and courteous than being clear. I wrote this article because I realise how this plays out as people get older and are uncomfortable about being direct for the sake of someone else’s feelings, even if that results in continued and unwanted attention.
Nothing my daughter said on reflection was rude or unkind. She didn’t make a personal attack or say anything unfair. She was just very clear about her wishes. And when I tried to make those wishes less clear, less final, more gracious etc, she responded by using even more direct language to make sure she was understood.
Thanks for your comment and I love these kinds of discussions! Such a tough area.
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I think a simple addition from you, modelling for her of “thank you for the lovely gift, that was kind of you to share. *Daughter* has had fun playing with you but would like to be on her own and with me now. Have fun playing!” It’s honest, it’s not apologising but it’s still graceful.
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You are absolutely right. But as with most things, it is easy to think of things to say with the benefit of hindsight, and while my reaction was less than ideal because I was busy hoping the ground would swallow me up, I wanted to be honest about my reaction. I smiled sympathetically etc and had a chat to the mother a little after, the boy ran off happily and continued to play with our group, and realise I need to add more context next time so I don’t appear to be the cold hearted monster some people think I was and rather the more bumbling, warm person I am. We have had some great discussions around this and I think my family is much more prepared for if this comes up again. And I love the discussion it has generated here so thank you for your comment!
I didn’t reply to your last question! I’m not sure how I would have responded. I hope it would be in the same way. It hasn’t come up before. My daughter will often tell her friends, male and female, that she needs space or doesn’t want to play right now. And her friends often tell her that too. They are all very accepting of this. We mainly socialise with other families who parent in a similar way so being clear about your needs is a very normal thing. This kind of final, ‘never want to play ever’ comment hasn’t come up before, which is why I was taken by surprise. And in this case it wasn’t to a family friend, it was to a relative stranger who happened to be a boy. If one of my sons said that to a girl or my children said that to the same gender, I would hope that I would be supportive of their wishes. But no doubt I would still feel super uncomfortable like I did yesterday because people-pleasing is something I continue to work on! Lots of processing still to do!
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I agree with your point as being clear in what we want out of our lives. But there is nothing wrong with being firm yet being aware of others feelings. Balance is important because being to agreeable can be a cost to our selves but only being concerned with our wants makes us egocentric, selfish and frankly ass holes. I hope she atleast returned the gift as she clearly had no intention of continuing a friendship. Again she is 4 has time to refine those skills.
I have been on the reverse side of this and would love the other child to be so clear in their feelings.
My son loves to make friends and give gifts, sometimes he needs space too.
Usually it’s the parents who overcompensate with too much manners training in the moment.
Kids are blunt and fully capable of processing the big feelings that result.
We as adults can support them and show them coping methods.
Its pretty simple when we stay even keel.
Yes, kids are so wonderful at processing these things! The little boy happily ran off and played with some of the other kids in our group. It is always the adults (read: me. haha) who complicate things with our own ideas of social graces.
Interesting timing for me to read this! Today a friend is coming over with her three boys (1, 5 & 6); last time they visited, our 4yo daughter would only play with their eldest, telling the 5 year old he couldn’t come in her room or play with them. When he got upset they left. I was quite taken back and didn’t handle it very well, making our wee one feel pretty bad, I guess. A couple days later I talked to my friend and she said his finger had been jammed in the door and he was havibg a really hard day that day, she wouldn’t normally have up and left like that. Anyway, they’re coming to visit today and I already told our daughter that he will be sad if he’s left out. Ouch! How should I have handled that? And what should I say now!? Thanks for a very thought-provoking read!
Gosh it can be so tough, can’t it?! In a perfect world our children would all love the children of our friends as much as we love our friends. But this doesn’t always happen! I think it is perfectly ok to tell your daughter that if someone is left out their feelings will be hurt. All choices carry consequences. Some good, some bad. But I also think that your home is your safe space and maybe it is worth having a chat with your daughter about whether or not she wants to spend time with this children as a group right now. If she doesn’t, maybe try and organise a one on one playdate with the child she enjoys, or if that isn’t possible, try and aim for a catch up with your friend without children. I have been on both sides of this. Where a friend’s child doesn’t want to see one of my kids and where one of my children doesn’t want to see a friend’s child. The interesting thing is, I have found when my children feel absolutely in control of that choice, they are very accepting of other kids needing space and they also come around much faster to wanting to see friend’s again after having some time apart. I find these issues can fester into something bigger and longer lasting when we try and force a relationship.
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While I agree with you on most premises here, as a fellow ex-people pleaser, I think you are making the same mistake that most of us do in recovery and are swinging to the other side, instead of finding a happy medium. What to me was lacking is a talk afterwards about being kind. She said thanks to the boy, but didn’t need that she didn’t want to play with him ever. Maybe developmentally she is at the age where that level of emphatic thinking is not developed yet, but it is our job as the adults to have those conversations.
Also, being a people pleaser is really a label that denotes many things that went wrong in someone’s upbringing and the core of how we learn to stand up for ourselves and not be codependent and rely on external validation.
When we have parents that allows us for security, self esteem and a strong sense of self, it allows us to stand up to others but with empathy and grace.
We definitely had a talk afterwards! My two boys found it an interesting situation too and it was a great discussion on the way home. I helped my daughter find some language she might use next time around `I don`t want to play` rather than `I don`t want to be your friend.` Even though I know this language didn`t come from a place of malice, as you say, balance is important. And again, you are right, I was caught completely off guard and was nervous of saying anything else in the moment that might invalidate her completely valid feelings. It has been a great situation for all of us to reflect on so that we all understand how we would approach something like this if it came up again. Thanks for your comment!
This is one of the primary personal messages I got from watching the R.Kelly documentary: That we as girls and women especially learn that it’s not ok for us to say “no”, that it’s good to be compliant and self-sacrificing. And there are so many little ways society teaches us that. And it all starts in the family. Just like it did for R. Kelly, someone who too started out as a victim, and who became a monster to get as far away as possible from the experience of disempowerment he must’ve experienced as a child.
I recently experienced someone close to us playing with Lora, my two-year-old. And when Lora did not like it anymore she told them “no” and clearly didn’t want to continue playing. And the person did it again. I stepped in and say: “Lora has already told you “no” once.” The person said: “We’re just playing.” I said: “Yes, but now she said no and she clearly doesn’t want to play anymore. When you do it again, you’re crossing a line that isn’t ok. You have to listen to what she’s telling you”. The person stopped and left immediately and my husband said that they had felt hurt. I hear these types of statements all the time. “We’re just playing.” And it creeps me out because it sounds exactly like something a perpetrator would say. And people don’t realize that they are perpetuating abuse through these rather innocent “games” they play with children, deliberately crossing lines. This is such an important point – and it’s something we as women especially have to step up to the plate, to dare to become unpopular and people being angry with us – to show our children that their voice matters, and that they are allowed, and have a responsibility to say no if someone does something they don’t like.
Thank you for sharing, and for standing up for your child!
Yes! Thank you for providing such a safe environment for your child where she is heard.
By the way, have you read the origin of the word nice?
late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from Old French nice (12c.) “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant, unaware,” literally “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (from PIE root *ne- “not”) + stem of scire “to know” (see science). “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c. 1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830).
In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken. [OED]
By 1926, it was pronounced “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” [Fowler]
(from the etymological dictionary)
I didn`t know this, but thank you so much for sharing. So interesting!
Thank you for putting this out there. Children learn by simply observing, so well done!
How crushed that little boy must have felt. He has likely been taught to be kind and was thoughtful enough to spend half of his winnings on a new friend. He has definitely been taught to be friendly, kind and generous…..
Many people have assumed this, but he wasn’t. He smiled and said ok and ran off screaming to one of the other kids in our group to wait for him. Kids in this age group are much more accepting of black and white language than we are as adults because they are still learning about the nuance of language and subtlety. My daughter wasn’t trying to be rude, she was just using the words she knew to communicate how she felt. But I realise now that a lot more context was needed for this story for a lot of people so I’m sorry if your take away was that this was a very negative experience for the other child. And you are right, he was obviously a very friendly and generous little boy.
The more I think about this the more I think you did the best thing possible under the circumstances. The only thing i would do differently (with foresight!) would be to try and change her language from “I don’t want to be your friend” to “I don’t want to play with you any more. Thank you for playing with me” before my child runs away. Interesting how hard this has been for so many of us!
This is brilliant. Well done on being brave and honest. We’re never going to get these moments bang on right but as long as we are as honest as possible all the time then I believe the least amount of damage happens in the long run. Autonomy is everything and kids know this instinctively. They are way ahead of us because they haven’t had decades of conditioning telling them otherwise. Anyway, I’m mansplaining like a mofo now. Just again allow me to say well done!