Joining Others at Play (page 2)
- 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.
Solving the Problem: Joining Children in Play
Familiarize yourself with the five rules of etiquette in the left-hand column of Table 7.1 and how children break them. Coach your child about how to meet other children and make good first impressions. It will take more than one session for younger children to use these rules effectively. Inevitably your child will make errors and will do some things well. You are watching for improvement from session to session. I find that children are very interested in learning these rules. Remember that your role here is to teach and support your child, not do it for your child.
Step 1: Search Your Neighborhood for a Suitable Public Place
Find a place in your neighborhood where several groups of children the same age or a little younger than your child play. A local playground or a school yard in your neighborhood where children gather and organize their own games are the best bets. Find a safe place where you are comfortable with the children who are playing. Do this at least a day before you try step 2.
Step 2: Teach Your Child the Steps to Joining Other Children
Younger children join others while they are playing. Children older than eleven years old join others when they are conversing. Here's how Dad introduces the rules to his eleven-year-old son Seth (who is a bit testy about the whole idea):
Dad: Humor me, and remember some rules for when you want to join in on some kids playing a game or talking.
Seth: What if they're talking about gangs?
Dad: First, listen to them when they're talking. Listen closely enough so they know you're interested.
Seth: What if I see a gun in their pocket? Can I say, "Is that a 38 or a 45?"
Dad: You wait and listen and see if you are interested in what they're saying.
Seth: They'll just tell me to go away.
Dad: You look at their eyes. If they look at you while they're talking, chances are they are asking you to join in.
Seth: I did that the other day. I waited until they were through, and I knew one of them. I started talking to the one I didn't know.
Dad: Look at their eyes: that's how people tell you they are interested in you. It took me a long time to figure that out. Then you wait for a pause in the conversation.
Seth: What if they talk very fast and don't take a breath?
Dad: Then you don't say anything. Wait for your chance, and say something to help them converse.
Younger children require a simplified version of this so they will remember the rules:
- Watch the game for the rules.
- Wait for a pause in the game.
- Ask to join.
- If they say no, look for another game.
Here's how Mom teaches seven-year-old Rachel to join:
Mom: We're going to watch some children playing. You might want to play with them, so I'm going to tell you some rules that will help you ask them to join. Let's say you see three girls playing with a ball. The first thing you do is watch. What are you watching for?
Rachel: I don't know.
Mom: You're watching to see what game they are playing and if you might like the kids and the game. The next thing you do is wait. What might you be waiting for?
Rachel: The end of the game?
Mom: Yes! Either the end of the game or a break in the game. Then you ask. What do you ask?
Rachel: "Can I play?"
Mom: That's right. Let's say one side is doing better than the other. You would ask the side that's not doing as well because they might need your help. Remember: watch, wait. and ask. Okay?
Step 3: Along with Your Child, Watch a Group of Children at Play
Bring a newspaper or magazine along with you. Have your child pick a group of children at play. Encourage her to pick children who appear to be the same age or slightly younger and about the same skill level or slightly less skilled than your child:
- Pick children who are about as skilled as your child at the game they are playing.
- Don't pick older children because they are less likely to accept your child as an equal.
- Don't pick children your child already knows, which will interfere with your teaching.
- Don't criticize your child in any way as he tries to join.
You and your child begin by watching a game in play from about five or ten feet away (the more running around in the game, the farther away your child watches). Watching a game from the sidelines is the way your child gets information and lets the other children know she wants to play. Sometimes the children playing will ask onlookers to join.
You may stand alongside your child in this step to make sure she understands the game. Don't be disappointed if your child isn't asked to play. It's important for her to learn the correct steps so that she doesn't intrude on other children's play.
Children who are having fun playing are usually annoyed by being asked what they are playing. They are also irritated by children who join a game but don't know what's going on. Have your child whisper to you what the children are playing, what the rules are, if there are teams, who is winning (for girls, ask if she knows who brought the toy the children are playing with), and any other details of the game that are important.
Here's how a dad coaches his son, Lee:
Dad: [Pointing to five children at play in the distance] Do those kids look interesting to play with?
Lee: I don't know.
Dad: Let's stay here and watch what they're doing. Let's look at those kids first. See if you can tell me what they're playing and what the rules are. [They watch for five minutes, and Lee correctly answers what game it is, who is on which team, who is winning.] That's great. You understand what's happening. Which side would need your help more?
Lee: The side with only two kids on it. The other side has three.
Dad: That's right!
This is an important question and answer. Your child needs to be looking to join the side that needs the most help, not the side that's winning. The children who are already playing will welcome help (that is, if your child's skill level is about the same as the children playing the game), since it evens up the game and makes it more fun for all.
Step 4: Help Your Child Think of How to Join In
Dad will help Lee think about how to join the game by focusing on two things Lee needs to know: when to ask to join and what to say. A pause in the game or the end of a round are ideal times to ask to join because they do not interrupt the flow of the game and show the children at play that Lee is considerate and knowledgeable about the game:
Dad: Which side will you ask to join?
Lee: The side with only two on it.
Dad: That's right. What can you ask them?
Lee: Do you need another guy on your team?
Dad: That sounds great. When would be a good time to ask?
Lee: After someone scores a basket.
Dad: That might work!
For girls, add:
Mom: Whose ball is it?
Laura: It's that girl's [pointing].
Mom: That's right. So who would you ask if you wanted to play?
Laura: The girl whose ball it is.
Step 5: Review with Your Child Why Children Are Kept Out of a Game
Being turned down from games is a fact of life. Table 7.2 lists reasons I commonly find for children being turned down and what to do about each.
Children without friendship problems are turned down frequently and are not concerned by it (this also shows the children at play that the child will consider their wishes even if it means the child doesn't get to play).4 Your child should expect to be turned down about half the time he attempts to join others. Far from being a crushing event, being turned down should get your child to look for another group of children who are playing. Prepare your child for this before he attempts to join in. You can do this by speaking about "another child":
Dad: Why might those kids not want another boy to play?
Lee: I don't know.
Dad: Suppose the boy was mean to them before.
Lee: Then they probably wouldn't like him and wouldn't let him play.
Dad: Yeah. What other reasons might they have?
Lee: Maybe they just didn't like him.
Dad: Maybe they knew he played much better than they did.
Dad: Maybe they didn't want to meet anyone new.
Dad: What's the best thing you could do if some boys don't want to play with you just when you want to?
Lee: I don't know.
Dad: Which one sounds good to you: try other kids, or try again later? [They're both good alternatives.]
Lee: Try other kids.
Dad: That's a good choice. Who else will you try of the kids we are watching?
Lee: [Pointing] Those kids playing handball.
Dad is encouraging Lee to solve this for himself, but when he doesn't know the answer, Dad gives him a choice of two alternatives. This keeps Lee involved in the process of discovery. It also gives Lee the idea that there are always options other than joining those particular children.
Step 6: Coach Your Child to Praise Other Children's Behavior
You are teaching your child how to let others at play tactfully know that he is interested in joining. One powerful way to do this is for him to praise the other children. Children who receive praise themselves are more likely to praise others. If you have started using tactful praise (Chapter Three) and if you praise your child for trying his best now, it is more likely that he will praise others. Praise is contagious.
Examples of praise your child can use for the children he is watching are "nice try" (for a near-basket) or "great shot" (for a basket).
Dad: [Waiting until a child playing almost gets a basket] What is something nice you can say about that shot?
Lee: I don't know.
Dad: How about, "Nice try!" Tell me when you can say something nice about what one of the kids in the game does. [Another child makes a good shot, and Lee says nothing.]
Lee: Oh yeah. [calls out] "Nice shot!"
This is hard for some children to do. Go on to step 7 even if your child doesn't get this step.
Step 7: Encourage Your Child to Try to Join
The other way your child tactfully shows interest in joining is to move to just outside the group at play. Getting this close sends the message to the children at play that your child is interested in this game. Encourage your child to ask to join after he correctly tells you when and who he will ask to play:
Dad: See if the kids will let you play. Go ahead and get closer to them. Stand over there and watch them [pointing to the sidelines of the game]. I'll be sitting over at that bench over there [pointing].
Lee: Okay. [Dad now backs away about ten more feet, sits on a nearby bench, and pretends to read a newspaper while actually watching.]
Step 8: End Your Child's Participation
You want to have your child end his participation on a good note. If he generally gets along well with others, then allow him to play until the game ends.
If he frequently gets into arguments with others, allow him to play only for about ten minutes until he learns the rules of a good sport (set out in the next chapter). Here's how Mom tactfully pulls Laura out of the game:
Mom: [Walking up close to where Laura joined some other girls at play] I'm sorry, Laura. We're going to have to leave soon. I need to do some errands.
Laura: Oh, Mom, I just started playing!
Mom: I'm sorry. You can play with these girls again the next time we're here.
Laura: Can I finish my next turn?
Mom: That's okay with me. Ask the girls if it is okay.
If your child wasn't successful at joining, praise her for trying. Remind your child that five out of every ten times, everyone gets turned down. Here's an example in which a group of girls did not let Laura join:
Mom: How did it go?
Laura: They said no when I asked if I could play.
Mom: You looked as if you were doing the steps well. I'm glad you listened to them and went away.
Laura's mom has Laura repeat steps 1 to 6 with another group of children.
Step 9: Privately Praise Your Child
Praise your child for attempts to follow your advice whether or not the attempts were successful.
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