Early friendships are so important for so many reasons. Early friendships help teach children how to treat others, how to be a good friend, and what kind of friend not to be. And sometimes, these early friendships teach a child how to walk away.
Ella’s had a tough time with the neighbour girl for a while. She’s tried talking to the girl on her own many times, but has yet to find a solution. Yesterday, at her request, I stopped and helped her talk to the neighbour girl so they could try to find a solution.
We started with, “Ella really values your friendship, but right now things seem difficult and she wants to find a solution that works for both of you.” We asked how the other girl felt. She agreed things weren’t working well. But when I asked her to explain, she just shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” I asked if she’d be willing to listen to what Ella’s concerns were, she agreed.
Ella talked, I recapped, and gave the other girl an opportunity to speak. She didn’t have anything to say. I asked a few questions of both girls, recapped, and asked them to brainstorm ideas.
Ella had a few ideas. The other girl didn’t. She agreed to Ella’s ideas. Ella suggested that she’d like the other girl to sometimes play her games, and if she doesn’t want the game Ella suggests, have an alternative game to suggest instead of saying, “No” without a back-up plan.
They went off to play. A while later Ella came in, they’d stop playing because the other girl wasn’t enjoying the game, didn’t want to play Ella’s other suggestions, but had no other idea for what to play. Ella was annoyed and walked away.
Today Ella came to us in tears, she’d over heard the girl telling a neighbour boy that she only came out to play because he was out, she wouldn’t have come to play if it was just Ella.
She’s so angry!
She wants to avoid this other girl now, but she lives next door, and the moment our girls are out, she comes out. Ella doesn’t want to prevent anyone else from playing with her, but wants to protect herself from the girl’s mean behaviour.
*I’ve witnessed the behaviours toward our children as well as toward others, so even though I don’t think Ella’s blameless in the friendship, I do think she has a right to be upset and a right to insist upon more respectful treatment.*
As Ella cries to us, we listen. We hug, we let her rage, and we agree, she deserves to be treated with respect. We ask questions, and let her explore her feelings. We do not offer advice or otherwise try to fix her problem. She finds the solution on her own, just as she made sure I was available to help mediate for them, she was the one who came up with her solution. She gave her friend several chances. And when she thought her friend didn’t understand what Ella was saying, she asked for someone else to help talk. That didn’t bring about change. So she decided it was time to move on and end the friendship.
These early friendships are so important. Some will last, others won’t. Both hold a great deal of value to our children. At some point in her future she’ll find herself in a relationship she no longer feels works for her. She’s already shown she can make the decision to walk away.
Over the course of the next few weeks she’ll see this other girl many times, as she navigates this social situation she’ll learn skills she’ll be able to use in her future. We’ll stand back, watch, listen, and hug her when she needs it. But we will not solve this for her, we will not dictate how she proceeds. Tomorrow when the neighbour kids are all out playing it will be up to her how she’ll proceed. It will be up to us to be there. Nothing more.
Allowing our children to navigate these relationships allows them to gain power and confidence that’ll stick with them in the future.
I want to clarify, younger children do need guidance interacting with others. Parents are the initial teachers of social etiquette. Parents are the ones who help a child learn hitting isn’t okay, yelling doesn’t mean you get what you want, and just because you’re bigger doesn’t mean you’re boss. Parents are the ones who make sure their smaller children feel confident enough to take up space and have a voice.
Around age 5 (depending on the child) it’s a good time to step back and let them try navigating situations on their own. Each time they try, they’ll get a little better. Some children will gain plenty of experience with difficult relationships early, others will sail through until they’re older before they have their first real disagreement with someone else.
In our case, Ella already had a couple of previous friendships we’ve moved away from due to personality clashes. We guided the interactions and decisions those times because she was a lot younger. This time we reminded her of the other times she’s made difficult decisions, and held space for her to make her own decisions.