By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT
Your four-year-old comes home from Pre-K complaining her friend called her stupid. Your 3-year-old has a raspberry on his knee and a story about a mean kid who pushed him. Your kindergartener tells you that her friend told her at school that she wasn’t invited to her birthday party because she’s Chinese. Ack! What’s a parent supposed to do?!
First, don’t panic. All of this behavior is actually…normal. If it helps, try to remember that your small child is probably not the most accurate reporter, you don’t know the context, and the wise teachers at your child’s school are the best people to handle these mistakes in the moment. Deep breaths.
From birth to age six, children are hard-wired to quickly acquire a wide range of social skills all by themselves, including social distance, language, and non-verbal communication. Preschool and kindergarten, with their exposure to other children and patient adults, are set up to teach the skills that kids seem to have a hard time mastering: how to make friends, share, be kind and play well with others, etc.
Young children don’t learn from books or lectures, though. They learn from experience, some of which is unpleasant. As much as it tears at our heartstrings, we do want them to have these uncomfortable experiences so that they can learn from them. “Hmmm…if I take another kid’s toy, he might push me, which might hurt. Gee…when other kids say mean things, that hurts too, and then I don’t want to play with those kids. I guess I’d better be kind so I have friends to play with.” Young children aren’t this verbal or thoughtful, of course, but they do internalize these lessons, which are actually much better than, “I’m so wonderful nobody ever does anything unkind to me.” Or, “Wow, if I just throw a tantrum all the kids give me whatever I want.”
So, what’s the best thing to do when your child tells you about other children being mean? First, just give them some empathy. “Oh no! It looks like you felt mad (or sad or frustrated) when that happened.” Then, after all of the feelings have been named, frame the incident as a mistake. You could add the lesson or ask them what they’ve learned. “I guess you didn’t want to play with that girl after she made that mistake!”
Later, in private, communicate with the staff at your child’s school about what you’ve heard. Chances are they will have some things to share about the context and how they handled the situation. In some cases, they may not know about the situation, though, and will appreciate the “heads up” that they should keep an eye out.
DON’T offer advice about what to do next time. Young children don’t learn from talking, they learn from doing. DO offer a bit of support, though. “I’ll bet next time that happens you are going to figure out the best thing to do because you know how to be a Good Friend.”
And they do! At least, they’re learning.