I’ll be perfectly clear and say that I have no intention of answering this question…I don’t think there is a definitive answer. It is a question we ponder with children often in our school. One way that children ask each other to play is by using the language “wanna be my friend?” But what do children have to say about friendship? What does our culture tell us about friendliness and it’s place in our interactions? I hear parents at the park tell their children “be nice” or “we don’t hit our friends,” but through the child’s lens how do these statements help them navigate the in’s and out’s of their relationships? Do children truly get to choose who their friends are? When a child is uncomfortable with how they are being treated by another, are they provided the space to move away from them and take a break or are they pressured to “make up” and keep playing? I know, I know…more questions.
When difficulties arise in a friendship (as they always do) and a child comes to me upset about something that has happened or something that was said, I have learned to ask an important question in the moment to help them think critically and to analyze the situation in a way that will allow room for self advocacy to grow. I ask…with genuine interest in an answer,
“Is ________ being a good friend to you?”
This often throws children for a loop because they are used to telling an adult about their problem and getting help or advice about how to “fix” the issue. I find that pointing them to how they are feeling in the given situation helps them pause to think if they are actually delighting in their time playing together. Tone matters though, because the other child is usually listening to everything being said. Taking a neutral stance and having a matter-of-fact, wanting-to-understand-each-side-of-the-story tone is important for both children to hear so that they can break out of the bully versus victim mentality and learn to simply advocate for themselves when something doesn’t feel right. Getting the children to speak to each other is key.
It can, however, be scary to tell someone you have a close bond with that you don’t like what they are doing, or that you want to take a break from their company. That is why when children are first practicing this skill they need some guidance, or suggestions about how to phrase things. These are the tools they will need to carry them through a lifetime of relationships and build the confidence it takes to risk telling the truth. They need to know it’s okay to take some time away from a friend if they’re getting overwhelmed, or to speak up about how they would like to be treated. And if they are on the receiving end of that kind of exchange, simple presence is all that’s required while they cope with the feelings that come along with it. But an apology should never be forced, or even suggested really. For more on that you can look here.
I know adults have a dreamy vision of what children should be…kind, empathetic, generous, affable, flexible…but children struggle just as we do and they simply don’t care about observing all the niceties that we maintain. They go through life without that “mask” on. Our expectations that they will honor each other and be kind in the midst of hurt feelings is misguided and unreasonable. You’d be hard pressed to find an adult who embodies these traits all the time. We must help children understand that their feelings are valid and heard, and most importantly that feelings come and go, like weather. When something upsetting happens they need to hear things like:
“it’s okay to feel mad/sad/upset about this.”
“this seems really important to you.”
“it seems like you need some space.”
“do you want to take a break?”
“I’d like to hear more about how you feel about this.”
“you don’t have to play right now.”
“would you like to try again?”
“you should feel safe around your friends”
We are their first advocates, we are here to listen to their feelings, to make space for them to cry or shout. We are here to be human and make mistakes alongside them…and to model what repair looks like when we screw up. It’s hard. It’s messy. But the relationship we build with children is what informs their understanding of the world and the connections they make in it.