Social Situations

Helping kids get along with others, particularly in online interactions

Posts gathered by Marta Venturini Machado, with her commentary:

I have been looking for discussions on how to help our kids navigate social situations while gaming online and skyping with friends. I found many discussions that talked about what to do when siblings were fighting, but fewer that focused on the same thing happening with friends outside the family, while playing online (which I initially thought would be different from real life play dates where we are physically with other families/kids; it isn't necessarily different, since the principles that apply are the same, but I found that there were some nuances).

I ended up reading a lot once again and that was great, because it helped me clear my thoughts regarding this matter, that were probably muddled because… emotions. 😉

I came to some conclusions, while adapting what I had read to our particular situation.

From what I’ve been actively doing in the past few weeks, this is what has worked for me:
  • being more present, being there, paying more attention to what's going on;
  • this doesn’t mean that I’m constantly interrupting or intervening but it means that I can tell when a kid is getting frustrated because the other kids aren’t answering his/her requests, or because skype isn't working properly;
  • what this does mean is that I’m able to witness what's being said and done and understand some interactions much better (thus, not siding only with one child, for instance) -- it also means that I can help rephrase something that has been said so the kids don't get upset (because I can better understand what the kid in question means) or notice cues of hunger or tiredness ahead of time, etc.;
  • focusing on being kind and attentive to everyone involved, kids and parents both;
  • checking in on my child every once in a while, by asking her how she’s doing and if she needs anything (I’ve let her know once or twice that I can help, if she wants me to, usually when we're in bed, chatting a bit before going to sleep) and also bringing her food and water;
  • dropping the idea of getting other parents to be different (more active, more engaged, or whatever I thought they should be doing).
  • And this is what definitely did NOT work:
  • dwelling on what had happened, on what I could have done, on how bad a mom I am for not having seen x, y or z coming;
  • letting my emotions get in the way (in our case, feeling triggered when I thought my child was being unkind to one of her friends), since those emotions colored the way I saw the whole situation, which in turn led me to treat Conchinha unfairly;
  • being manipulative/seeing my child as in need of being fixed, because she has done something I felt was inappropriate and left me feeling embarrassed -- coaching yes (and probably best later and before the next gaming session), but not reprimanding and trying to change the behavior right then and there;
  • assuming that, just because my daughter seemed to be ok if I left her alone in the living room, I could go spend uninterrupted hours in the kitchen, cleaning and cooking.
  • Here are some quotes from four discussions on Radical Unschooling Info (I added the original posts because it might be useful to read all of the advice having the original question in mind. I also highlighted, by turning the font bold, the writings that most helped me.)

    1) June 14, 2015

    Original post:

    Links or book recommendations on discipline (how to avoid it actually) or how to approach negative behaviors. I'm struggling with my approach when my children are fighting or wanting me to discipline to make something fair in their eyes. I was raised in a strict/yelling/fear based home. I'm doing my best to...look at the why of their behavior, remain calm, not yelling when frustrated, to allow my children (or my children and their friends) to work out their problems with little interference from me or dad, and when i do need to step in giving them another opportunity to work problems out together with a small suggestions. I'm hoping reading a little more on this topic will help me have more tools in my tool belt to help or show my children how to help themselves.

    Brie Jontry:

    There's the misguided idea sometimes that unschooling means hands-off, but it doesn't. You, as the adult, need to make sure everyone is safe, and that there's as much peace as possible. Leaving kids to work through problems on their own isn't partnership and it doesn't strengthen relationships. Your kids need you to help them sort through problems.

    Sandra Dodd:

    You're leaving guests in your home at the mercy of your children too? That's not being a very good hostess. You're leaving your children at the mercy of outsiders? That's not being a very good mom. It was a lazy-ass parent who came up with that "let them work it out" nonsense.

    Meredith Novak:

    A good general principle is to look for ways to change up the dynamics before things start to go wrong. Once people get to the arguing stage, it's a lot harder to change directions.

    ...You don't have to agree to a setup that's going to end badly, you can decide ahead of time that no, this doesn't tend to work out well, so let's not go there. Don't be mean about it, but do be frank, and look for alternatives.

    ...Some people need a looooooot more attention than others, and when they don't get it, they'll look for ways to get that need met. It helps a lot to actively look for ways to offer attention before that person is clamoring—and it helps you feel more in control, rather than feeling like you're fending off grabbing hands. And kids can need attention from siblings as well as parents - so look for ways to get the kids doing something together (cooperatively!) earlier in the day, so the kid who needs more attention can get that met sooner and the other doesn't feel quite to bombarded by the needs of the sibling.

    2) October 3, 2014

    Original post: Anonymous. If you happen to recognize the situation, please treat it as anonymous anyway.

    The very short of the issue is that my son (seven years old) is being continually mistreated (physically, emotionally, and verbally) by his best friend (an eight-year-old unschooled girl), but keeps going back for more. My questions are-how can I help him navigate these situations and is it good? right? to make the decision to end the friendship for him, or should that decision be left up to him?

    Here are the details:

    The kids met just over a year ago and became fast friends, as did my husband and I and the young girl’s parents. My son (J), and their daughter, (A), have a lot in common. They are both athletic kids who love to run and climb and jump; they both love Minecraft; they like the same kinds of books; and they both love circus type stuff and do classes together three times per week. Add to all of their shared interests the fact that they are two of the very few unschooled kids in our neighborhood, and you get a lot of time spent together.

    At first, this was ok. There was a bit of a formalness in their relationship. Quickly they got very comfortable with each other. At that point, A started lashing out toward J. If he said something she didn’t like or wouldn’t stop talking when she told him to, she would grab his mouth; if he didn’t want to play what she wanted to play at the playground, she would threaten to not call him to play Minecraft. He has been punched for doing something she doesn’t like, and recently, was hurt on one of their circus elements when she, purposefully, executed a move improperly and repeatedly. Just yesterday, when he told her that no, he didn’t want her help tying his shoes, he wanted an adult, she got (in her words) annoyed, and poured water onto her hand and then wiped it on him.

    We have taken breaks from A at my son’s request. We recently took a long break because I felt it was (well past) time for her mom and I to talk. The talk went for more than two hours. One way I thought I could help the kids was to position myself a little closer to the kids during their time at the playground. A’s mom thought I was being ridiculous-that they kids could work it out. I feel that they’ve shown us that they can’t navigate these situation and that A’s mom and I should be closer to help them when issues arise. Of course I don’t need her permission to stay close by, but her reaction made me feel like she thought I was overreacting and that she really doesn't think her daughter is acting out in unacceptable ways.

    I’m at a loss. I feel like this is a bad relationship for my son, but I don’t know if it’s at the point of forcing the friendship to end. I’m also having a hard time because I’m always on edge when we’re around A and her family. That is not a peaceful way to live, and I don’t like feeling this way. Any advice? Many thanks.

    Karen James:

    What I have done in the past when I've witnessed another child being physical with Ethan in a way I didn't think was appropriate is to go over and ask Ethan if he was okay with what happened -- calmly and with honest concern, not in a way that would incite drama. In response, he might say "It's okay" and I then knew they were playing or that he felt confident he could handle it. If he said "No" and then I would say to the other child "Don't grab his mouth (for example). Is there something I can help you with?" That might inspire a kind of back and forth conversation between Ethan and his friend. Maybe they would come to some understanding and then carry on. Sometimes it seemed clear to me that we should probably get together another time, so I would say that.

    While they're young, I think it's a good idea to stay close enough that your son knows you know what's going on at least. If a friend of mine didn't think that was necessary I would say "That's what I would prefer to do." I wouldn't talk two hours about it though. I would keep it all very light, and I would aim to be of assistance to both children while they were together.

    Robin Bentley:

    Kids learn self-respect when they are respected by the adults in their lives. They learn to respect others, as well.

    These kids are young and obviously need help in negotiating their friendship before it gets to the hurting/wiping/punching phase. That’s why young children have mothers - to help them, to be present, to intervene if necessary.

    When my daughter was younger, she was friends with a couple of siblings. They did classes together, played in the park together, visited. Eventually, their friendship took a turn. It often ended with my daughter screaming at them or sometimes physically lashing out, the kids running to their mom and my daughter being blamed. I took that on, believing my daughter had that kind of temperament to just "lose it." The other mom even cut off their friendship. We were at the same classes and she would herd her kids away from my daughter. It was awful.

    When I realized (from watching them with other kids and eventually getting more of the story from my girl) that they were the kind of kids who badgered and pestered and bothered other kids into reactions. The ones being pestered would then be blamed for upsetting the siblings. I saw how the lack of the mums' presence was the real problem. Their mom was too busy holding court as the homeschooling doyenne and I was visiting with friends, myself - neither of us were paying enough attention to our children. Her kids knew they could get a reaction out of my kid, so they did.

    I should have been more present and helpful to my own daughter. It would have made her life so much easier. Although I did not believe in "letting them work it out," I also sometimes just hoped for the best because it is *work* to be present. Many times, I just wanted to hang out and talk with my friends. If I had to do that over again, believe me, I would be my kid's partner, not her panicking, mentally absent mum, dealing with the fallout of young kids' undeveloped relationship skills.

    Alison Broadbent:

    One of the hardest things about having kids is separating our own stuff from our kids' stuff. Seeing our kid being disrespected can be so emotionally activating. I'm a big fan of staying close when kids are playing. I was lucky in that in our unschoolers park day we pretty much had agreement that us moms would advocate for the kids. Not one against the other but for them all. someone was having a tough time, we'd be there to hear it and see what could be done. We could pretty much tell how far things could go before they got out of hand. If I was close and saw a situation develop I might do what I used to do when my son was a toddler and redirect. Start a game. Anyone want to play tag? This is when they were that age.

    It's really important to know too how what your child wants from a relationship or a situation and it's good to talk about that at home when it's not happening. It became a problem though when some families came to park day who had that same, let them work it out, attitude. It often was those kids who were more problematic and their moms would have the same attitude of what was our problems, all this as they saw it, hovering. I think we were able to keep pretty cool knowing we all wanted the same for our kids. I'm happy to see my son now almost 15 advocate for younger kids who are having difficulties. When kids are heard they definitely internalize that experience.

    Joyce Fetteroll:

    Most adults picked up social skills from other kids who were making stuff up. So why should a 7 and 8 yo be expert at something their parents may still be struggling with?

    One of the beauties of unschooling is being there for kids to coach, to step in, offer advice so they can see people who are more skilled. I think the advice to find ways for both kids to learn is excellent. And for the OP to be more aware of how her own child is contributing to the frustration.

    Sandra Dodd:

    I also agree very strongly that the mother (any mother) shouldn't be projecting her own boundaries onto her child. If I were to choose for my husband which friends he should keep based on my perception of whether they were using or abusing his friendship, that would be all about me, and not about him.

    There are friends I've had for a long time that I will take some shit from because in the balance of the relationship, they're worth the inconvenience of their teasing or their questioning, or their irritating physical habits. The friendship is not destroyed by their awkwardness in one area of life.

    I know people who have nearly NO friends, because they go out to catalog the ills and wrongs around them, and can't really like anyone, really.
    When a child is 7 (or 12, or 18), the mom needs to stop feeling she owns his body, I think.

    Asking someone not to touch a babe in arms is one thing. A toddler, maybe. If he's old enough for the mom to leave him where she can't reach him, I think it's too much for her to expect that she can dictate to others whether they touch him, or for her to expect him to accept her strictures on whether he should let others touch him.

    Some people don't get enough friendly touch in their lives, and what might look aggressive to one person might be fun to another—arm-punching, back-slapping, hand-holding, pushing back and forth while walking, arm-in-arm walking, playing slap games or thumb wrestling—those are all touching, and life can be warmer and better WITH those things than without.

    When a child wants to touch or allow himself to be touched in a harmless, friendly way, he should not have the voice of his mother in his head saying not to let ANYone touch him.

    Cary Seston:

    Describing an 8 year old as "abusive" sounds as far from true as I can imagine. An 8 year old is trying to get her needs met and is learning about navigating social situations along with her own changing emotions and ego development.

    Directed at the anonymous mom, if your son wants to be with his friend, likes her, asks for her, but you're not thrilled with some of their interactions, then stick by them and help them both out. If it doesn't help and she continues her behavior in exactly the same way and he still wants her company, then I think he isn't remotely bothered by it. Otherwise he will tell you he doesn't want to see her. AND, soon she will be 9. Which is different.

    My son's best friend since 2 1/2 is extreme in his personality. He used to hit, bite (age 4). He is reactionary and very intense. At age 8, Oliver calmly said during one scary (for me and his mom) reaction, "you know, it's not that big a deal." And his friend immediately relaxed. We were in awe. At age 11, his friend told his mom, "Oliver is the nicest person I know. I think he must be the nicest person ever." His friend has developed some skills that have helped him navigate more easily by now. At age 4, I worried and wondered if I should keep them apart. I told my spouse who said, no. I told my brother, who said, "how does Oliver feel about himself?" Good I thought. Here I am with the kids at 11 and this friend is the one he wants to be with the most. He is intense, schooled, and can be difficult for lots of people, but not for my son. They love each other. It's been a good lesson.

    Oliver doesn't connect with or probably need other mellow people like himself. I don't know for sure. But what I can see is that for years he has laughed with his intense friend. Asked for him, regardless of his moods. Oliver might be one of the only people in his friends life who isn't intimidated by him and always likes him. It's a gift in my view.

    Tread lightly when deciding that you KNOW what's best for your children. They are not you. They are wholly themselves.

    Dina Fraize:

    I think all of these relationship issues, good and bad, are wonderful opportunities to learn and grow as a person no matter how old you are.

    For me personally I would define grabbing my mouth as an unacceptable behavior, but for someone else that is not the case. We all have our own personal levels of acceptance and tolerance in our relationships and I think we are all learning and defining what works for us all the time, changing and tweaking what works for us personally in relationships.

    I have watched my kids do this over the years and I have found focusing on listening to them tell me what works for them and what doesn't is always helpful for them. I try not to focus on the other person, but on my own child and his needs and wants in a relationship with another person. My kids usually come up with a good solution for whatever is happening in friendships and they have chosen to leave some behind or work on some, or accept some. I encourage them to sit and think about what feels right to them, communicate their needs/limits and see how it is received and go from there.

    I can very much hear how you feel as a mother, and I totally understand, but I have never found talking with the mom of another kid to be very helpful.... helping my child and his friend by being close and present and working with my own child as to how he wants to approach the situation has been a more helpful way to go.

    I have also found that my kids are really good at figuring out, with support, what they find acceptable and unacceptable and moving toward or away from people based on what they define for themselves as a good relationship for themselves.

    3) March 23, 2015

    Robin Bentley:

    I strongly disagree with the "let them work it out" advice. From a radical unschooling perspective, doing that is *not* partnership.

    If one's child is in danger of being pushed around by another, it would be better for mom to be there with her child. She can help redirect play, if necessary. That is not "stepping in," that is facilitating. Kids learn from their parents and other helpful adults. If your child really wants to play with this child (who may have issues of his own in his family), you can be the parent who helps them get along.

    Playdates shouldn't be the mothers hanging out in one room while the kids are left to play alone somewhere else, especially when they are young and not skilled yet at handling things that go wrong. *Be* with your child.

    Jenny Cyphers:

    This could also be a case of a child getting so frustrated that they feel the need to lash out at another child. It causes me to wonder what leads up to the hitting? Some kids are very quiet when they do manipulative things to their friends. One of my kids was the one who would lash out after another kid had been quietly manipulating them over and over in such a way that nobody could see it happening until my own kid would hit and be called out for that. When pulled aside for a breather, it would come out that there was some pretty passive aggressive stuff going on behind the scene that was directed at her in such a way that nobody else knew what was going on. It's very hard to call that out. What really helps is to be WITH the kids playing WITH them.

    It could be as simple as one kid taking all the best building pieces for themselves quickly and quietly and the other kid being so frustrated with that, that they hit because hitting gets the message across very fast that they don't like what is going on. Hitting is a way of communicating upset. It doesn't make it right or okay, but it's an indicator that SOMEthing else is happening that is causing a kid to be so frustrated that they are lashing out.

    Sandra Dodd:

    Be nearer. Don't expect the other child to negotiate all the playing. Find things they can do together that you can help with, play with them, or be very near so you can be helpful—physically with materials or rearranging things, or turning water on and off, or whatever it might need; and also socially, to notice when things aren't going well.

    My guess (which could be wrong) is that you've told him he can do whatever he wants to do. Every time anyone has told another person "you can do whatever you want to" they were wrong. It wasn't true. If your son likes to play with other children, coach him on ways to make that happen. He might need to allow himself to be imposed upon. :)

    Are you using the play time as a time for you to visit with the other mom(s)? If so, it might be better to get a babysitter and go out to lunch with her. If your child is playing, and you're there, and he's getting hit (every time) that's your fault, not the other child, nor the other child's mom. If you left him by the side of water and walked away, or left him with a big strange dog and walked away... the walking away was the biggest problem. You wouldn't need to "intervene" if you were there in the first place.

    Robyn Coburn:

    I think what distresses me about [that mom]'s story is that her daughter was 2 and the other child was 7. Definitely don't leave those two children alone together ever again. That is too large a development gap to be left alone. Hitting is communication. I have been lucky that most of the time the incidents of hitting with Jayn have been with other home schoolers, and there was an ongoing relationship. I always blame myself entirely - that I wasn't close enough at that moment.

    4) October 27, 2014

    Sandra Dodd:

    Tell your kids they can come home when they want to, and tell the other kids to be nicer. If they play at your house, say at the doorway "You can come in if you can be nice," and if they start the terrible actions, say "Do you want to be nicer, or do you want to go home?” There's no magic about unschooling. Be glad your kids aren't stuck with bullies six or seven hours a day (plus bus rides, sometimes) 180 days a year. And don't tell your kids to stay outside playing. Don't make playing outside a virtue. Don't make coming back in the house a failure, as some families do.

    Meredith Novak:

    It definitely sounds like your son is needing a lot more social time with other kids - so that's something to make a priority. Social needs are curious. Some kids need a lot of attention from everyone, but some have a distinct preference for adult attention or for socializing with other kids. So there's no need to beat yourself up if you have a kid who likes other kids - you can't Be another child. But you can work hard to find kids who are better playmates for your child, so he's not so totally dependent on the neighbors to meet his needs. That's hard on them And on him.

    Depending on his personality, it might be helpful to look for classes and clubs that meet regularly so that he knows when he can expect to see certain people and for how long. Or not! It might be too stressful to hang out just for an hour at a time - he might need longer to settle in and feel like he's getting his needs met. That's something to learn through observation and experimentation.
    Photos are links to posts at Just Add Light and Stir that relate to the ideas above.

    photo by Julie D

    photo by Karen James

    photo by Gail Higgins

    photo by Colleen Prieto