Playground Rejection Is Not Just For Kids

One of the best things about being three years old is that everyone is your friend. My kid runs up to another kid on the playground and says “Hey, wanna slide?” and they’re off to have adventures, even if they never see each other again after that day. Kids that age like pretty much all the same things and believe in the Truth of Childhood: Climb it if it can be climbed, always run as fast as you can, and anything can be a pirate ship. They don’t know enough about the world yet to judge or condemn or turn their noses up at kids who want to join in so everyone gets to play. It’s beautiful and pure and I wish I was three years old again on a daily basis.

Or at least that was the world Evan lived in until this week. My heart is breaking a little all over again just thinking about it.

We’ve made a habit of visiting the park in the evenings, so Mommy can get some exercise, the kids can run their wiggles out and we can all enjoy as much sunlight as possible before it starts getting dark at 5 pm. There are two playgrounds at this particular park – a bigger one meant for older kids and a tot lot meant for littles. Caroline has no preference – as long as it has a swing, she’s happy. The big playground was crowded on Wednesday, so we took a stroll around the lake to the smaller park for some low-key fun.

When we got there, the situation looked perfect. There were two little girls – probably 5 and 6 – on the playscape. Evan ran off to join them and I put Caroline in a swing for a marathon pushing session. A few minutes later Evan can running back, looking a little upset.

“That little girl said I can’t slide, Mommy!”

“It’s OK honey,” I reassured him, “You’re allowed to slide if you want to. Just be nice to your friends and use kind words and remember you’re not the boss of them, OK?”

“OK Mommy!” he said and ran back to try again with kind words and a gentle voice. My boy is really good at using his kind words and gentle voice.

But I forgot the magic age of insta-friendships doesn’t last that long and by kindergarten little girls don’t always want to play with little boys, especially if they already have a girl friend to play with. Despite his best efforts, Evan was rebuked again and told he wasn’t allowed to play. “Go away, boy!” I heard from across the playground, and my heart sank knowing what I was going to hear next. My sweet little ginger, his offer of friendship crushes like a leaf under a pink Dora shoe, burst into tears and ran into my arms.

As I reassured him it wasn’t his fault – he was still a good boy, a nice friend, he had done everything right but sometimes people don’t want to play with us – I got a lump in my own throat. Oh how I know that feeling! I am overflowing with empathy when it comes to rejection and being left out and worrying that everyone is hanging out doing fun stuff without telling you. Even as I was telling Evan it was OK to cry but he shouldn’t let those mean girls affect his self worth – in the most toddler-friendly words I could think of – I realized I have never, ever been able to take my own advice.

Right now I can fake it, because my words to him are more powerful than my emotional reaction or my words to myself when I don’t think he’s listening. But the gravity of helping to shape my children’s entire emotional life if overwhelming. I miss the days when the only kid-related problems were whether or not they were sleeping through the night or if I was a bad mother for not cutting their grapes in half. I’ll take the baby stage back in a second rather than deal with the drama and heartbreak of my children’s friendships and unfriendships and fake friendships. I can’t even deal with my own friendships without chewing my nails into little stubs of worry and self-doubt. What if they don’t want to play with me?

So for now I just hug my boy and tell him he’s kind and good and beautiful and I adore him. I dry his tears and help him climb the jungle gym and cheer for his upsidedown sliding antics so he has the confidence to keep being himself. And I hope and pray he always feels that way, whether he’s 3 or 33.

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22 Responses to “Playground Rejection Is Not Just For Kids”

  1. Ginny Lynn says:

    I totally get it! And I REFUSE to let the mean girls tell my 2.5 year old daughter what she can and can’t play on the playground. Where were those girls’ mothers letting them act like that on a playground? I’ve marched right up on the play set with her, baby in my arms….and went down the slide with her following right behind me. I don’t have to say a word to them except, “Excuse me please” when we walk by.

    I was in a Carter’s recently, where they have a little Lego table for the kids. I was shopping and my husband was standing a few racks over watching our daughter play. Another little girl, maybe a year older than my daughter, just hit her out of the blue. Her mother was standing RIGHT THERE and said NOTHING to her. Who does that? Who lets their kids physically abuse other (SMALLER) kids? My daughter didn’t cry because it didn’t really hurt, but since the hitting concept is not something she’s really been exposed to, she went to my husband and said, “That girl hit me. It wasn’t nice. Why did she hit me?” I witnessed the whole thing and I felt TERRIBLE for her. Her feelings were so hurt! Maybe I’m immature for doing it and maybe there is a better way to handle it, but I went right into earshot of the other mother and said quite loudly and clearly, “Thank you GB for not hitting the other litte girl back. It is not nice to hit someone and it hurts their feelings. I’m so proud of you for being a big girl and not hitting back.” SO THERE! This was like two months ago and I’m still REELING just thinking about it! Any ideas on how to handle that situation any better?

  2. jen_schoeph says:

    I am so sorry! This is the ultimate hurt in their 3 year old lives. My daughter, also 3, has a friend who does this to her at least once a week. It’s sad that I am still calling her a friend, huh? Anyway, we now tell her that if your friend says she doesn’t want to play with you, be your friend, etc…then don’t as you don’t want be friends with someone who is mean, rude, etc. It doesn’t make it any easier & she is usually crying her eyes out. My son is 6 & it happens. He’s going into 1st grade & there were issues in kindergarten…boys won’t play with other boys, for example, if they are not fast enough because, as I have been told, it’s not fun to play tag with someone who is slow (this came from another boy, not mine). Kids are honest and sometimes their honesty equates to mean. We had a lot of conversations & tears during Kindergarten because we were all learning as we went.

    And you are right, it is hard to take your own advice. I have tried, hard, to fit in with some of the moms in our neighborhood & school and some a just flat out rude. It’s hard to not feel hurt but when I sit back, I realize that I have made other friends & I don’t need to be friends with everyone.

  3. I totally understand what you are saying, at least from the adult perspective. I haven’t had to deal with this with Noah yet, but I dread that day. Thanks for the reminder that it’s OK to be me, even if the other kids don’t like it.

  4. Amy says:

    I hate this. I actually stopped going to the park by my house from 4:00-6:00 because I couldn’t stand the cliquey parents and mean kids. I know it was an age gap, but it always devolved into name calling. I don’t want Spencer to think calling people stupid is ok and the kids always called him stupid. The one and only time I tried to intervene, I got a “boys will be boys” response from a parent and just decided to not go back.

  5. Joanna says:

    Oh, man. This one’s a toughie! I’ve had to deal with a similar sitch with Nico (a girl in his class telling him he couldn’t be friends with another girl b/c it was her friend), and it’s was NO FUN. Kids can be jerks, and it’s really hard explaining that to a little person.

  6. Maggie says:

    Ugh. “…the gravity of helping to shape my children’s entire emotional life if overwhelming.”

    So very true. My three year-old is already asking if people will laugh at her if she wears a certain t-shirt, etc. My heart breaks to think of her feeling unsure of herself.

  7. Jen F (from Robinson) says:

    Ugh, you’re gonna make me cry :( Gonna go snuggle my tiny bunny who still thinks the baby in the mirror is her BFF.

  8. Carrie says:

    :( This makes me so sad.

    I’ve had to fight the urge to tell kids at the pool to just let my daughter play with them when they ignore her attempts to include herself. The last time we were there one little girl turned to her mom and said (with disgust in her voice), “Why is that weird little girl following me?” I wanted to scream, “BECAUSE SHE IS KIND AND SWEET AND WANTS TO BE FRIENDS WITH YOU.”

    It stinks having to accept that there are some hurts we’ll never be able to protect them from experiencing.

  9. I HATE THIS. One day at the playground a little girl a couple of years older than Piper was THRILLED to play with her. Then she started bossing her around, which Piper didn’t recognize. She just did what the girl said. Then the girl started showing off and telling Piper that she couldn’t do the same things because she was too little (things Piper was perfectly capable of, btw) and then tried to STOP HER from playing with some things. Her mother was 20 yards away watching her son in a baseball game and couldn’t hear what was going on. It was left to me to explain to the little girl why Piper stopped playing with her. Because eventually she just, stopped listening to the girl and started doing what she wanted and the little girl was pissed off.

    I was pretty honest with her. She didn’t like it.

    We went home.

    Then there was the little 5 year old at a park on vacation that I had to actually say the words “You’re old enough to know how to take turns and not cut in front of kids who are littler than you.” whose parent was 30 feet away on her phone.

    I could go on and on.

    Some kids are d-bags.

  10. Quiana says:

    Fantastic post (and great meeting you at BlogHer!). It’s amazing how quickly the ability to be fast friends morphs into exclusivity and cliques on the playground (my LOs 2 years old). I like some of the previous posters agree about the blame being on the parents. I’m often dumbfounded at how the parents off the offending children stand there and don’t correct their children when they do things like this.

  11. Robyn says:

    I have tears in my eyes for Evan. We’ve already had issues too, but Rory’s have been with her BFF at daycare. it’s been going on for well over 6 months. The other girl bosses Rory around. Shortly after we get in the car, she always tell me about it. It’s horrible because I can’t do anything to stop it because I’m not there. All I can do it encourage her to stand up for herself and tell her it’s ok to cry to me about it. I talked to the daycare lady about it and she said she’s working on it and that the other girl doesn’t have the same stable family life that Rory does, and she takes it out on all the other kids. It’s getting better, but I just can’t get over how young it starts!

    • bebehblog says:

      I know! They’re too young for this, they just barely understand the CONCEPT of “friends”, why can’t they be nicer??

  12. Meagan says:

    Oh man… This is one of those things I’m dreading for whenever I have kids. (Besides poopsplosions, lol.) Kids this young really shouldn’t have to hear stuff like that from other kids. My heart goes out to Evan. :(

  13. Audrey says:

    I actually stopped taking Ev to parks for this very reason. I was tired of him wanting to play with other kids who already had playmates, and them telling him to go away. I mean, he was 2..jebus. Be nice to him. So we stayed away and I stuck to playdates and group play at the parents center. Now he’s old enough that he tries to play with other kids, but if they don’t want to play he seems okay with it for the most part so long as I am willing to interact with him. It breaks my heart more when the neighbor kids reject him because he loves playing with them so dang much. But they have a half dozen other sibs to play with and don’t need him. :/

  14. Emily says:

    Hudson has this need to be in everyone’s business. At the park he insists on introducing himself to every kid there and sometimes the older kids just ignore him. And he will just stand there behind their turned backs and just chatter away “Hi! I’m Hudson. I’m 3! My shoes look like dinosaurs! Aren’t they cool!” And I will call him over and say “sometimes people just don’t want to be your friend and that’s OK. You can always introduce yourself but you also need to know that sometimes people will just not want to interact with you & sometimes, it’s OK to just go on to the next group to find a group that will include you and make you happy.” when kids have told him not to slide on a slide or something like that I just tell him “The other children here are not the boss of you. If someone tells you you cannot use something- use it anyhow and nicely tell them that your mother is right over there and she says you can use whatever you’d like if they still give you a hard time.” I’m also not above telling children on the playground that they should know better than to pick on younger children. It’s a hard road. I know. And I think it depends on your own experience as a child how you handle these situations. I never had an issue standing up for myself as a kid and luckily was never pushed around more than once by anyone. And I try to tell my kids the things that helped me most in those situations as a child. I also think in some ways not telling them the sad truth that some people are assholes is sometimes a disservice because once kids know that they are at least a little less likely to be hurt when these things happen. They can chalk it up to the kid just being a dick and move on.

    • bebehblog says:

      I don’t remember being pushed around much as a kid (if I remember correctly I was thrown out of at least one preschool for hitting a kid who was bullying someone else) but as a pre-teen/teenager I always worried about being liked. I want Evan to liked by EVERYONE because, duh, he’s awesome. So I think I need to let that go and realize he’s an actual person who gets to make his own friends (and non-friends).

  15. Brigid Keely says:

    We’ve had the “boundaries” talk several times and I think (hope) that each time it sinks in a little more.

    Sometimes cats don’t want to be petted, and sometimes they do! You always have to ask before you pet a cat. Cats, and people, like different things and sometimes they are in the mood to be friends and sometimes they aren’t!

    Sometimes people like hugs, and sometimes they don’t! You always have to ask before you hug someone you don’t know well. People like different things, and sometimes they are in a mood to be hugged and sometimes they aren’t. Why? Well, sometimes they’re shy or nervous or sad or angry or thinking very hard about something. So always ask first!

    Sometimes kids want to play with you, and sometimes they don’t! You always have to ask and take “no” for an answer if they say no. People like different things and they like to play different games, and they might not want to play the game you’re playing or play the way that you play. It’s ok that they don’t want to play, maybe they’ll want to play later, or maybe you’ll find someone else to play! It was kind of you want try to include them. Do you want to try doing “X” instead?

    • bebehblog says:

      That is EXACTLY how I try to explain things, but it’s so hard for him to understand. And sometimes he latches on to little bits of it – like “They don’t want to play with me?” – and the rest is lost.

  16. Poor Evan! Elena will play with him. We think little boys are cool. The older girls treat her like she is a baby and ignore her.

  17. Sarah says:

    Oh man, I am so not ready for this. I am pretty confident in my self and that sort of thing doesn’t bother me personally too much, but I”m hoping I can pass that along to my kids. Your boy is so sweet. My little one would have played with him! lol =)

    – Sarah

  18. Joanna says:

    Oh this weighs heavy on my heart. We’re starting to see this a little with Madison in two ways. 1). Her BFF is a little boy who is about to be five and he’s suddenly realized that she’s 3 and not as cool as him and doesn’t want to play with her as much and I can see her heart break. 2). She’s bossy. She comes by it honestly & well, kids don’t like to be bossed around.

    I remember very clear in elementary school two girls telling me I wasn’t allowed to be their friend anymore. (two very mean girls). I remember sobbing to my mom and I remember the hurt. I can’t even imagine how my mom’s heart must have felt. For how sad I was, I was a kid and I was resilient. She just had to sit there and watch her child be sad and not be able to do anything about it. It makes me cry just thinking about it and I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared to handle it happen to my kids.

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