Should You Force Your Daughter To Be Friends With An Unpopular Kid In Her Grade?
Dear Care and Feeding,
There is a girl in my daughter’s grade that is generally on the periphery of the social scene. During parties, Girl Scouts, and social events, she keeps to herself (whether she wants to or feels she has to, I cannot tell). from what I gather, this has been the way since Kindergarten. We moved to the area last year, and I immediately took a liking to this girl. I felt that her interests and my daughters were similar, so I arranged a playdate. It went wonderfully. However, my daughter has expressed concern that some of the other girls may treat her differently should they learn of the playdate. I replied that I understood her worry, but that a true friend would not do such a thing. She instead should try to focus on how much fun she had and how happy she felt to be with the aforementioned classmate. My question is, how do I explain this to her in an age-appropriate way? I worry she’ll isolate her peer for the sake of appeasing other classmates, and I do not want that for her or this other little girl.
— Can’t We All Get Along
Slate’s advice is, basically, you did the right thing. You have told your daughter that she needs to be friends with this person despite the fact that she may suffer for it.
OK, sure: loyalty is obviously a virtue and you should not let peer pressure decide your fate. But peer pressure isn’t imaginary. It isn’t a bunch of monsters under the bed that don’t really exist but to be used rhetorically in moral lessons.
Your daughter has moved to a new town. She seems to be adjusting nicely.
One day you were at some bake sale and noticed that another child was not an active participant in the social scene. You decided that you liked the child and thought that was unfair. You forced a playdate on your daughter with that child. She dutifully went to the playdate and then reported back that it was fine but she would prefer not to have more playdates in the future. Perhaps that was because this child is unpopular and she doesn’t want to risk her tenuous new relationships by befriending someone unpopular. But perhaps she also just didn’t like her? Maybe she was placating you by saying she loved it. You’re her mother! You intervened and did this.
This entire exercise is also predicated on your assumption that the unpopular girl is depressed and wants desperately to be part of this social scene. That is not something you should assume. There are many different personality types! Some people aren’t joiners.
Let’s assume though for the sake of argument that you’re right and your daughter had the best time in the world on this forced playdate with this perfectly nice child who is incredibly depressed because she has been unfairly ostracized from the Girl Scouts and that your daughter doesn’t want to continue the friendship with this leper because she is afraid of social backlash.
That is not an irrational thing to care about. Your daughter is new to this town. She needs to make her own friends.
You and your daughter are entering a situation that neither of you has perfect knowledge about. The unpopular girl and the rest of that class have known each other for years. They have a history. You have no idea what that history is.
When you board an airplane and they read the safety instructions, they tell you to secure your oxygen mask before securing others. I understand that it would be nice of your daughter to go out of her way and befriend this other girl and shout their friendship from the rooftops, but your daughter first needs to secure her own oxygen mask.
You don’t say exactly how old your daughter is but I’m going to assume this is 3rd or 4th-grade drama.
You need to let her learn social dynamics on her own. That is how people become who they are. They do not learn it because someone told them “this is a value system.”
Your daughter needs to feel the tension of trade-offs on the playground. She needs to encounter a situation in the cafeteria where her expectation is one thing and then the reality is something else. She needs to be surprised and humbled and guilty and proud and happy. She needs to find these experiences for herself.
This is a nice way of saying that your daughter probably needs to have a few times where she likes someone in secret, makes the choice to outwardly act as if she hates them for peer pressure reasons, witnesses the consequences of that for someone she secretly is fond of, and feels the guilt of her decisions.
You are acting as though this is, like, a child bleeding to death on the soccer field and your daughter wants to give her aid and everyone else in the class is saying “let them suffer” and you are telling your daughter, “yes, give her aid. Don’t let her die.”
But that isn’t what’s happening. No one is bleeding out. These are children, who through crosses and losses and happiness and delight, grow into adults.
If someone is bleeding out on a soccer field, parents and medical professionals need to intervene and save them. But you’re not talking about that. You’re talking about the basic social dynamics of any group. Learning how to handle those dynamics is one of the main things you learn growing up.
I don’t know what you do for a living, but you probably have some community at work or a friend group at the hair salon or whatever. You probably don’t like everyone you work with. You probably don’t have the exact same equal feelings for everyone who sits next to you at the hair salon. Every day you make a million little decisions—tradeoffs—about how to handle that delicate balance.
Your daughter will be asked to do that every day for the rest of her life.
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