Joining Others at Play
- My child is uncomfortable meeting other children. How do I help?
- My child can meet other children but soon alienates them. Can I help?
Background: Making a Good First Impression
You will almost never see a child meet new children by introducing himself and shaking hands. Children make new acquaintances by joining others who are playing.1 Some children don't know how to do this and avoid it. Others join in but do it in a way that quickly alienates others. This chapter shows you how to help your child meet new friends and make good first impressions—one of the most important social skills children can learn.
Rules of Etiquette for Joining Others
Try this at the next party you attend. Stand near two people you might be interested in meeting who are talking to each other. Look at them and say nothing; just listen. If they are talking about something interesting, stick around. If not, move on. Notice you don't hurt anyone's feelings if you move on.
If you're still hanging around, notice whether the people conversing start looking at you while they're talking. If they do, they have invited you into their conversation ("opened the circle"). If they don't look at you, they probably want to be alone. Notice again that you don't hurt anyone's feelings when you walk away. Rules of etiquette protect everyone's feelings.
Studies show that children use three approaches when near other children at play.2 Some follow five rules of etiquette and easily join others. Some children break these rules: although they may join others, they quickly alienate them. Still other children don't know these rules and don't try to join others. This group winds up playing by themselves. How children join is shown in Table 7.1.
During one of my interviews with children, a well-liked seven-year-old girl surprised me (and her mother sitting nearby) by reciting all of the five rules without any help. In my interviews with girls and their mothers, I learned two other rules that girls have to follow to join other girls at play:
- If you know a girl playing in a game you would like to join, you first look at her. If she looks back at you, then you ask her if you may join the game.
- If she doesn't look at you, she is letting you know you shouldn't join.
Where and When
Many parents think it's okay for their child to try to meet others anywhere and at any time. In fact, it is better to encourage your child to try to make friends only at certain times and places. Studies show that children who try to make friends when the teacher or coach is talking or other children are trying to work in the classroom do not make friends.3 Potential playmates reject these advances not only because they might get in trouble, but they are usually annoyed when someone distracts them from their activity. Better times and places to try to make friends are when children are waiting or unoccupied, for instance, before or after school, before or after team practice on playgrounds, or in lunchroom.
I've found the steps set out in the next section to be effective for boys and girls who are in first grade or older (below first grade, children do not organize themselves in games). Boys will want to join other boys when they are playing, while girls are successful at joining either girls or boys. Children who master all the steps will have skills to make them successful in joining others at play in any situation.
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