"In my experience, what interferes most strongly with a parent's wisdom in [the area of their children's social lives] are the painful memories from his or her own childhood. We all wish we could save our children from the pain we experienced, and at the same time we do not always remember exactly what happened to us."
Michael Thompson et al., Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children
The overriding message of this brilliant book to parents worried about their children's social lives is: in most cases, if left to it, children will FIND THEIR OWN WAY and they WILL BE FINE.
But when is it really time to worry? What signs should we be looking out for?
If your child is withdrawn, appears to be (or feels they are) rejected by their peers, is anxious or depressed - should we just 'leave them to it', or should we step in? And what changes should we make?
All children feel rejected sometimes. I have a memory from primary school: my usual group of friends assembled at break time to play 'cowboys and Indians'. But they wouldn't let me join their game! I was confused, frustrated, sad, angry; I didn't know what I had done to deserve the rejection. I told a teacher, who tried to mediate by telling the others they must 'let Elizabeth play'.
'Alright then,' one of my friends said, once the teacher had moved on. 'You can be a buffalo.'
Perhaps some of those same friends hold memories of rejection by me which I have forgotten? (If any of them is reading this blog - please message me privately ;-)).
However, mostly these are blips, small tests, abnormal occurrences.
One of the most fascinating pieces of understanding that came out of this book, for me, is that social categorizations follow typical patterns across many groupings. It is almost as though, if you put any random group of 100 middle-school kids together, roughly 12 of them will be 'socially rejected', 40 'socially accepted', 20 of them will be 'popular' and so on.
What are the implications of this?
This implies, to me, that OUR SOCIAL STANDING IS NOT SET IN STONE. Our position in the pecking order can change and be changed. To some extent, our social status is merely an identity - a role - that we have, consciously or unconsciously, assumed, within a particular social context.
And we can re-evaluate our choices.
Have you ever experienced this yourself? Perhaps a 'cool' kid you knew lost their status after a particular event, or, conversely, an unpopular child rose in status thanks to some artistic, sporting or other achievement?
Perhaps, in your own life, you have experienced different senses of 'belonging' - or 'not belonging' - in different group settings?
However, here comes the catch.
According to the authors, once these identities become established within a particular context/ environment, it can be very hard for THE GROUP to change its mind. An individual child may decide that they no longer wish to be CLASS CLOWN, but rather a serious student, or a previously rejected child may decide that they no longer accept their rejected status, but THE GROUP is primed to behave towards these individuals in a certain way, and it can be very difficult - sometimes impossible - to change THE GROUP's mind.*
This is where the strategy of the CLEAN SLATE comes in. Moving a child who is not thriving in one environment into a new/ different environment may be just what they need to re-invent themselves and re-shape their own identity.
I've experienced this myself, and with my own children.
In Switzerland, I was told (by another parent) that one of my children had 'social anxiety disorder' because of his extreme shyness and fear of rejection. I remember a particular incident, delivering him to the school gates, where his classmates were waiting, and seeing them all completely overlook him, as though he were invisible, whilst they greeted each of the other members of class as they arrived. It almost broke my heart.
But we moved country - moved school - and the forecast is very different. Now we arrive at school and friends - new ones and old - come up to greet him. It is heart-warming, really.
So, if your child is currently 'socially rejected' and having difficulties - take heart. Things can change. Some ideas to consider:
-Talking to their teacher - find out whether they corroborate your view of things. Children can behave very differently with their parents from with their peers, as I'm sure we have all experienced.
- We tried counselling, and I think it helped. I was initially outraged when the teacher suggested it, but found the process to be healing and helpful for all of us. So stay open to options for support and help - we all need a little extra support at different times in our lives. It is not a sign of failure. As a parent, one can easily get too close to the situation to see it clearly.
- Consider a clean slate - maybe even a change of school. I know other people for whom this has worked, and it worked for us, as I've said above. We often fear change for our children, but SOMETIMES a big change may be a positive thing for your child.**
I believe the BEST schools and the BEST communities provide DIVERSE outlets for individuals to grow towards their fullest potential. As parents and as human beings, we can support this aim.
Perhaps the most important lesson is TRUST? Believing in our child's inherent resilience and resourcefulness? We say so much when we are not speaking at all.
This wonderful book about building self-esteem amongst all family members has some great ideas on how to prime yourself to believe in your child and your own parenting.
What do YOU think?
Have you experienced the benefit of the 'clean slate', either for yourself or someone you know?
Peace, tolerance, love
*Though some 'whole school' strategies that focus on changing the culture of the school or institution by, for example, encouraging 'bystanders' to speak up against bullying, and promoting an accepting, compassionate mind-set have been very successful.
** Two caveats: 1) there are different schools of thought on stability/ change for children; I grew up as an 'expat kid' moving around different countries, so am more comfortable with change than a lot of people; however, as a parent I have seen my kids experience both positive and negative outcomes from switching schools (- negative when the child had previously been happy and settled, positive when the child had been rejected and withdrawn). Consider your options carefully, and trust your gut instinct as a parent - and listen to your child's views. 2) If you do move them, you can still expect a term of 'readjustment'/ acclimatisation with some teething issues along the way. Hang in there! The long-term view is important.