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September 07, 2013

The fourth “R” that makes all the difference in school


By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

“Could you give her some advice?” I ask my teenage son.

“Sure,” he says, and heads in to talk to his 8-year-old sister, who’s had a tough day at school.

These days, I find myself doing that more and more as my almost 16 year old is becoming more like an adult, less like a child, and my daughter is metamorphosing into a big kid. With a new school year and new grade, my daughter’s navigating ever more complicated waters at school. She’s on track with the three r’s. For both my children, it's school’s other “r” that elicits no end of daytime turmoil and evening tears: recess. If you’re a child whose struggling socially, the very worst time of the day is recess, when you have to either risk rejection by approaching other children, or simply play – or sit – alone. 

Slow going with friends

Last year, it took my daughter half a school year to make two good friends – and then this year they ended up in the other classroom; so once again, she’s on her own. At dinner, when I ask who she played with, she’ll tell me, night after night, in a very calm way (Why is it worse when they’re calm about it?) she sat alone. She tells me, so adult-like:

 “It’s slim pickings. All the girls already have a best friend.”

“I’m not so good at making friends.”

And the zinger:

“Nobody will play with me.”

This is one of those gut-wrenching parenting moments that can come as a shock when your child starts school. No one warns you that there will be times when your exquisite child is friendless – often for no obvious reason.

To be clear, I’m not talking about bullying – or even bullying in the form of exclusion. But some kids just don’t pair up easily or quickly. Instead, they sit on the benches and stand against walls while everyone else is screaming with joy, happy to be in the thick of it, on the playground. My daughter is slow to warm up and waits for people to come to her. In preschool she sat in a tree every day during recess for about three months, looking down at the group of girls playing doll and family – games she didn’t want to play. Finally, I suggested she ask the girls if she could be the family dog. Incredibly, that worked and she came down from her tree for the rest of the year.

The days of match-making are over

But the older the child, the more difficult it is for a parent to fix. I can’t match-make friends the way I could when she was in preschool, setting up play dates in the hopes that one will create an instant friend. My maturing child suddenly has a say in the matter – “Mom, she’s just not my style of person.” Plus, the advice I offer – “Why don’t you just ask so-and-so to play at recess?”– often falls on pre-tween ears as nothing but my cluelessness about the complicated lives of second graders.

So I was thrilled when my teenager confidently agreed to offer his advice. Fifteen minutes later, my daughter emerged from her room smiling that, once again, her big brother came to her rescue.

The next evening, I tried to keep the anxiety out of my voice when I asked her how recess went.

“It was great!” she announces. “Olivia asked me to play.”

I try not to gasp because Olivia (her name has been changed), as all the moms know, is the “It” girl in her class. Everybody wants to play with Olivia.

“Olivia? That’s nice,” I say. “How did that go?”

“Good!” she answers, and happily explains that she took her brother’s advice about making friends. Look at that, I thought. He’s become so wise.

“What did he tell you to do?”

“He told me to play it cool. He said that I shouldn’t act desperate. Nobody likes people who are desperate.”

“Hmmm, how did you play it cool?”

“When we were in the middle of playing squirrel, I walked away.”

“You walked away in the middle of playing?” I ask, trying to mask my rising sense of panic. “Did you ever come back?”

“Yes,” she said with a shrug, as if she didn’t care in the least that she walked blithely away from the most popular girl in her class! 

“Was Olivia still there?”


“Sweetie, I think Olivia might have been confused by what you did. Next time when you’re playing, you shouldn’t walk away.”

She looks at me, semi-stunned. “Really? Was that bad?”

“Well, no, not bad, but you can be a good friend by just being yourself. Leaving might not be the best way to make a friend.”

“So I’m a bad friend!” Now she’s on the brink of losing it. “I ruin everything!” 

Reliving junior high miseries

I’m quietly bashing myself over the head: Bad mom! Bad mom! Why do did I go and harsh her second-grade happy-buzz? It takes awhile, but then I get it: I’m so worried about her ruining any chance she gets at friendship because, having been a parent for 16 years, I’ve been through this time and again: being the helpless observer when your child doesn’t get invited to a birthday party, a play date, a slumber party.

What’s more, parents’ worries over their children’s social lives often have to do with their own jumbled history that, even if it had gone well for elementary school, can without warning implode somewhere around junior high, when suddenly having a good, true friend seemed as impossible a feat as waking up with straight beautiful brown hair and ridding yourself of your freckles and retainer. I don’t want my children to suffer social wounds that stay with you for life, but of course I can’t. I also know that, even though a good teacher can make all the difference for a great learning year, the deal breaker for kids – when it comes to thriving at school – is whether or not they have a good friend. One is all it takes.

But if all these years of parenting have taught me anything, I know that as painful as it is, I have to step back and let my child figure most of this out on her own. My daughter has always done it in her own way, in her own time. I just have to wait for her to come down from the tree.

She makes this clear the next night when I suggest, again, that instead of benching herself at recess, she could ask so-and-so to play – she looks at me in the eye – again, very calmly (who’s the adult here?), and asks, “Mom, would you rather play with somebody who isn’t really your friend or would you rather be alone? I’d rather be alone.”

I’m curious to hear from other parents: do you have a child who is slow to make friends? If so, what do you do that may, or may not have, helped? I’d love to hear your stories.



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Wow, this is a tough one. I was this child. I wasn't into sports or horses like the other girls were, so I wasn't interested in playing with pretend ponies or kickball, etc. Some of the kids would offer to have me play with them, but as your article states, their play wasn't my cup of tea. I was into books, music and art. (I still am.) I liked to play on the swings but they were always taken. I spent most of recess sitting by myself or walking around seeing what the other kids were doing. Schools should have more individual play items such as jump ropes and bouncy balls and maybe have some books out there too. It might have helped if I'd had a sketchbook I could take to recess. Now days I suppose you could take an iPod or a book with you.

I think it's important to understand that not everyone needs social interaction all the time and that your child might need some social down time before heading back into the classroom. These kids should be told that's it okay to take a breather during recess and that they don't have to be interested in the same things everybody else is. Also, most playgrounds are generally not pretty places. I know it's pie in the sky with school budgets squeezed as they are, but wouldn't it be nice if playgrounds were more like parks—with areas of trees, grass and shade? The child sitting alone might not feel lonely if they're sitting under a shade tree reading or sketching.

In my opinion, 2nd grade is not too old to "play match-maker". Maybe not as easy as it was and of course depends on the kid, but still very common and often helpful. I also hope that every child's teacher is taking an interest in the whole child. This includes social development and helping kids overcome their shyness. There are important roles for the adults to play here. For a kid like this, I'd be questioning the placement process. Who made this class placement? Were they not aware of how difficult making good friends has been for her and that she has been placed with neither of friends? Maybe there are good reasons for it, but it would be good to at least all be on the same page in understanding the problem and working to solve it!

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@Nola: Thank you for what you wrote and you made so many valuable points: I think telling a child she/he doesnt have to Play with other kids all the time is important and telling the child that its OK not to want to do what everyone else is doing.
Leslie Crawford
Senior Editor

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@Scott: Great questions to ask the teacher...if only I had requested this-for her to be placed with her friends-last spring. But also to talk to the teacher about what she can do to facilitate things. Here's hoping schools improve in developing the whole child. Learning how to make friends is not a given and doesn't come easily to all kids.

Whether it's OK to be alone is a serious question. Being an extrovert, alone in a crowd is NOT a good place for me and I'll talk to anyone at all. But I love what George Washington said, "It is better to be alone than in bad company." I had my share of bad company in high school and beyond, where being alone may have been less harmful. Moving to new schools I sometimes became chums indiscriminately with the first kid who came along.
My burning question is whether it's less harmful to be with a "bad" friend, termed the "frenemy" sometimes, or to just stay solo. I don't often look for or notice loners but if I do, I try to say "hi." I tend to think that adult loners WANT to be left alone, are making that choice by not speaking. Could this be the reason children who notice loners don't befriend them? Could they make the assumption that these lonely kids are judging THEM? ("She's just not my style of person").
I have told my introvert daughter, who had trouble in 3rd grade but has been OK with friends the past 2 years, that "friendly" people who will talk to anyone will guess that she doesn't like them if she is too quiet. That not chatting can be seen by an outgoing person as being "snobby" and disliking everyone. That kids may think she WANTS to be alone, so she should be kinder to THEM, take a deep breath and SPEAK, for gosh sakes!
Things have gotten better at school so maybe my advice wasn't terrible. Every year though, I get worried about a repeat of that lonely year. I pray for my child every day.

I have twin girls, and while one of my twins is outgoing, the other has always had trouble making friends. She wants friends, but really doesn't know how to go about it. If you looked at my daughter, you would not realize she has disabilities. She has what is known as "Invisible Disabilities."

Her IQ is right there with her peers if not higher. However, her disabilities are ADHD (ADD) and Non Verbal Learning Disability. The latter of these disabilities is where her social awkwardness comes in. Why? Because she doesn't understand social cues and body language very well. If not spoken and/or shown to her, she doesn't really understand.

Other kids just don't understand why she doesn't "get it." Especially when it's so easy for them. She wants to be able to walk up to other kids and ask to play, but she just can't or won't. So, like the parent above, I would love to be able to help her more. (She is almost 11).


Our school has an awesome program called Playworks. We have a full-time paid adult "coach" who does our P.E. lessons and who also organizes all kinds of things at recess. Not only are all the kids involved, but he's playing *with* them, keeping things moving, making sure everyone gets picked, teams are balanced, etc. And the kids are coached on how to resolve conflict on their own rather than rely on adult. There is also a reading club at lunch recess twice a week for the kids who don't want to play. It's important for kids to be physically active during the day so even though there are kids who want reading club to be every day, it won't happen.


This is something that I have been struggling with forever. Thank you for starting this conversation. I will be visiting everyday for updates. My son is 11 and an only child. He has always had a difficult time making lasting friendships.
I have been told that he is too nice, more mature than others his age, he just needs to be himself and not try so hard, he is not sure where he fits, he is too sensitive, he is an old soul, and countless other reasons. I have had him evaluated several times - ADD, CAP, complete neuro developmental eval. All were found to be negative. One of the psychologist told me that he may not have friends at school but he would make friendships where his interest are. This has proven to be true. Only problem is that he only sees these kids outside of school. It is also very easy for him to make friends with older children and converse with adults.
For him I think it all started in 2nd grade when he was bullied and the situation was not handled properly and continued for the school year.
We changed schools and the school we choose was a small private school. Most of the kids had started there in Pre-K and friendships and groups were established. Unfortunately, for him he focused on his past experiences and was hard for him to put himself out there. I think this set the precedence for how he was viewed by the other children.
The school has been very pro-active in helping him with this but it is still a struggle.
This year 3 new boys have come to the school. He has befriended one of the boys. I have my fingers crossed that this will be the year that he will have a "school" friend.
In contrast he is very confident when performing. He loves performing arts and playing the piano. He once told me that he would live on a stage if he could. This is where he shines and feels good about himself.
What I have learned is that he is very sensitive and that he is advanced when it comes to understanding emotional situations. To me this is both a blessing and a curse. Adults love it and kids just don't get it.
My advice is to find your child's passion and immerse them in it. They will be with children with common interest and natural bonds will form. You will see that these friendships will be very deep and gratifying for your child.
This does not solve the school friend dilemma but it gives them the opportunity to make friends and have those social interactions.

@ Mom of Tweens,

It really helps to hear from other parents going through this - thank you. You echoed the situation with my older child who for eight years was an only child and came into a small private school a year later, after most kids had established strong ties. I also found this to be true that for some kids, their friendships will be outside of school, not in it, which is helpful. I love what you wrote - and comes as helpful advice - to support your child's passions so that he can find friendships (and know he's capable of making friends), even if it's outside of school. Good luck this school year!

At a PTA meeting to kick off the school year we were asked to write down one hope for our child. Mine was "I hope she makes one really good friend." I'm not worried about my daughter academically. She's ahead. But making friends??? Hmm.

My teen still struggles with this. I am at my wits end because I feel like I have tried everything. It's heartbreaking to watch such a good kid so lonely.

So, you trusted your son to give her advice, then, even though she was delighted with the results, you told her she was wrong and let her feel that she ruined everything. And you are worried about her problems? I think you are trying to fix yours and live your life through her. You have disrespected both of your children and seem oblivious about that. Go play with so and so is the worst thing a parent can do. Why would you pick her friends for her? What if she doesn't like them? What if they don't like her? I agree with her that it is better to be alone than to socialize with people you don't like. Leave her alone and let her grow. The advice I got from my older brother and sister was infinitely better than anything my parents ever gave.

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