8

My son is eight and is in third form of elementary school. He is friendly, social, generous, fun, and popular among both his class mates and their parents. But recently there is a saddening development among his friends.

When my son invites friends to his home, he is always open to other kids coming, too. When he plays with "Tom", and "John" calls and asks if he can come, my son always answers: "Of course." He loves all his friends, and wants all of them around him all the time. We used to have three to five kids in the house on many afternoons.

My son's friends on the other hand usually have one other favourite friend. They play with everyone as a group, while in school, but at home they are content with having their one single best friend over and since a few weeks they have begun to prefer to be alone with that friend. So what has been happening for almost two months now is that whenever my son wants to play with "Tom" and/or "John", the two have always already agreed to meet, and they tell my son that they want to be among themselves and that he cannot come. And this not only happens with "Tom" and "John", but with several of my son's other friends also. Most of his class mates, and unfortunately all of his – former – closest friends, have currently formed "couples", leaving my son the proverbial fifth (or, in this case, third) wheel.

I don't completely understand this, and my son has no explanation either. For a few weeks now he has spent most of his afternoons alone. Only when one "partner" from one of the "couples" is otherwise occupied (usually with sports or family events), the remaining kid is open to play with my son. My son is visibly sad and hurt by the ongoing rejection, but as yet he remains true to his friends.

I'm not sure wether or not I should talk to the other kids or their parents. I don't think forced friendships work, so I hesitate to get involved, but rather hope that this is a phase and will pass.

But then, there is an additional complication. I'm the coach in a climbing group for kids from 7 to 10. My son is in that group. We have a long waiting list of kids that want into that group, and some kids have been on that list for two years.

A couple of weeks back, before the rejections started, "Tom" asked my son if he could join the group, and my son asked me. "Tom" didn't know about the waiting list. I decided to let "Tom" skip the waiting list and allowed him to join. I did this for my son, because "Tom" is one of his closest friends and it made my son happy to have him in the group. And "Tom" and his family will move away at the end of the school year, so his position in the group will become vacant again soon and the kid at the top of the waiting list can join, albeit a few months later than if I hadn't privileged my son's friend.

Now, at the beginning of this week, a day after telling my son that they wanted to play without him, "John" asked my son if he could join the climbing group, too. He and "Tom" allowed my son to play with them on that day.

Basically, I don't feel too good about letting a second kid jump the waiting list. I was making an exception for "Tom", based on the fact that he would leave the group again soon, and my infringement would not be permanent. But I must admit that if "John" was my son's best friend and they were playing together every day, I would probably make a second, and permanent, exception, for the sake of my son.

But now, I feel that "John" is taking advantage of my son's friendship towards him, while at the same time he does not reciprocate the feeling and isn't a friend to my son. Today, as usual, "Tom" and "John" rejected my son's attempts to make a date with them.

So I wonder. Disregarding the waiting list for the moment, should I invite "John" to the group, too, because this would please my son and might actually bring the kids together again? Or does it only bring "John" and "Tom" together, who are then both part of the group? Or should I tell "John" that he needs to decide wether he wants to be friends with my son, or not, and not use his friendship, if he doesn't want it? Or should I just tell him that it is not possible, using the waiting list as an excuse? Or what?

I want my son to have friends. I want to facilitate these friendships, where I can. But I also want to "deflect" those friendships that are, in my opinion, not good for my son (in this case, because his friendship is being used to gain access to something, not out of "love").

What is the right thing to do?

(Again, please disregard the problem of the waiting list. I might not admit "John" to the group regardless of what would be right for my son and their currently deteriorating friendship. The waiting list is a different problem, and not what I'm asking about here. I'll solve that problem with my conscience and my co-coach.)

  • I know nothing about how climbing is structured. Is it likely that "john" and "Tom" will spend more time together at climbing sessions, further adding insult/injury to your son? – anongoodnurse May 13 '16 at 15:48
  • In climbing, one person (the "climber") climbs the rock, the second person (the "belayer") holds the rope and keeps the climber safe. At that age, it is common to form teams of three. The third person holds the rope behind the belayer, acting as a "guarding angel", when the young belayer makes a mistake. In our group, we usually mix the teams, so no two (or three) kids always climb together. Also, when my son and the two kids are together, they do play together and not exclude one or the other. What goes on on a more subliminal level, though, I can't tell. – user4758 May 13 '16 at 15:53
  • I have to admit based on comments below that I'm unsure of the question. You don't specifically want help with the climbing question, and you acknowledge that your son talking with his friends is not an option. Would you still consider that your talking to the parents of his friends (in effect forcing the kids' hands) is more acceptable? Are they good friends of yours? Perhaps you can refocus your question (there might be a contridiction (see par 11 and final par.) – anongoodnurse May 13 '16 at 16:27
  • @anongoodnurse I want help with my son's friendship troubles. The climbing group admission problem is where I am beginning to get involved, wether I want it or not. What I want you to disregard is the morality of the waiting list, because if I did the right thing there (not admit "John", because the kids waiting on the list have first right to be admitted), then that advice would not address the friendship problem. So please answer the climbing group problem based on what you think I should do about my son's friendship problem (and ignore the waiting list problem). Does that make better sense? – user4758 May 13 '16 at 16:55
  • Yes, it does. You might want to state that in the question itself. :) – anongoodnurse May 13 '16 at 19:19
6
+200

It might help both you and your son to know that this kind of friendship adjustment is common at his age. The nature of friendship changes as children move toward adolescence, becoming less about just having fun together and more about intimate personal connection. The formation of "best friends" pairings during this time is common. Here's a classic study on this topic, which examines intimacy and reciprocity in friendships in 10- to 13-year-olds and in 13- to 16-year-olds. You'll also find books, etc. on this topic in the parenting section of your library/bookstore, if you'd like to read more.

Just the fact that it's common doesn't make it any less painful for your son, of course (classic cold comfort there). Here are some practical takeaways that you and he may find more productive:

  1. It's not about him. He's experiencing rejection not because he's a bad friend or unlikeable, but because he just happened to be the last one standing in something like a game of musical chairs. Friendships grow, change, and fade away sometimes --- this is a good opportunity for him to learn that, and for you to help him understand that it's not a judgment on his character.

  2. It's probably happening to other kids in his grade now, too. Advise him to look around more broadly during recess and other free times to see if it looks like someone else needs a friend. You can talk to other parents in his class perhaps, and see if there's another child who is also getting third-wheeled. He can keep playing with Tom and John in group settings, where they seem to be welcoming still, but this is a good time to start adding new friends, too.

  3. Being "single", like everything else, has both good and bad to it. Being rejected hurts, and it sounds like it's also leaving him with empty afternoons when his friends are off playing without him. You can't make it not hurt, but you can help him fill his time. If possible, adding special activities with you --- one on one daddy time --- would be a fantastic silver lining. This might end up being a period in time you both look back on with fond memories. You can also help him find other great activities he can throw himself into without needing anyone else to play with him: reading (so many good series written for his age! Consider not only novels like A Series of Unfortunate Events but also comics like The Adventures of Tintin), drawing, swimming, legos, sculpting clay (if you have a camera available, even shooting a short claymation film!), writing stories, gardening, etc. Talk to him about what kinds of things he likes doing alone and why; this is an opportunity for him to learn more about himself (maybe he'll discover he really enjoys keeping a journal, something he might never have spent time on while with friends).

Chances are, this is a temporary transition for your son. Friendships in his class with continue to reconfigure, and he'll find new friends (or shift relationships within his current friends, perhaps when Tom's family moves away at the end of the year).

So your job right now is to help him weather the transition in a healthy way. You can...

  1. ...help him remember the intimate connections he does have (to you, other family members, etc.) by spending quality time with those people.

  2. ...help him make new friends to augment the friendships he has already, since those boys aren't really meeting his needs anymore. A bonus is that having a wider circle of friends will make him more robust to the next time this happens (friendships will likely reconfigure for him a few more times over the next several years).

  3. ...help him learn more about himself and what kinds of solitary activities he finds fulfilling/enjoyable, to fill some of his time until he has a busy schedule of playdates again.

  4. ...teach him that sad experiences (like being rejected by friends) are also opportunities to grow as a person and learn empathy --- other kids get rejected, too, and so do adults, and it always hurts. He knows now how someone else might feel when they get rejected, and he'll know what to do to help them feel better.

tl;dr

Note that none of the above suggests you should pull strings to try to make your son's relationships with Tom and John work better. You're right that you can't force friendship, and it's unlikely that there's anything you can do to make their friendship group go back to the way it was. Instead, you can use this as an opportunity to guide your son through a common albeit sad experience, so he comes out the other side stronger, kinder, and wiser.

3

This is a tough situation because we hate to see our children upset, but we don't want to meddle, either. I would ask your son how he feels about the situation, then maybe model with him some things that he can say to them to tell him how he feels when they are leaving him out. It sounds like the children are using him as just a "stand-in" when they are bored. It's important to talk to your son about what a true friendship is. I wouldn't talk to their parents because that could lead to resentment towards your child (ie: I'm only playing with you because my mom says that I have to be nice.) If they were bullying, that would be different. I do think that it might be a good idea to maybe facilitate some play dates with other children so that he might find someone that he has more in common with, perhaps other children from the climbing club? At the age of 8, I don't believe that it's outside of the boundaries to help in that area. They need all the guidance that they can get so that they can learn what to look for in strong friendships as they get older.

1

This may feel a little succinct, but our job is to teach our children how to deal with adult life, not protect them from life. The only way you should get involved is to teach him how to talk to his friends and tell them how he feels. How to communicate back and fourth. You never know, it could be a misunderstanding :)

EDIT: The goal here is to teach healthy communication as he grows up and bring conflict to a resolution. I see that your child has had phone communications with the other kids, and that it has been made pretty clear that the kids do not want to be friends with him. Most people need closure with that sort of thing. I know I'd be hurt. It is hard to have that sort of communication via phone, or even talking, so I would suggest having your child write a letter to the kids saying what he wants to say. Try to steer him away from saying angry things towards them, and just express his feelings. That should help bring closure. Closure is the important part to for your child's emotional health.

I would also be careful about the situation with the climbing group and the child skipping the waiting list. I do not know what your options are, but if it is an option for you to have those kids removed from the climbing group, and you choose that option, it could generate a lot of hate towards your child at school. It may be best to just let it be. It is not fair, I agree, but it may be best.

  • Thank you, @Jeff.Clark, that is solid advice, and I usually follow it, but I'm not sure it is a solution to the current problem. If I had two (adult) friends who began to prefer to spend time with each other and without me, I'm not sure that I would want to tell them that this hurts me. If they wanted to spend time with me, they would not tell me to stay away. So what would my telling them achieve? I wouldn't want a "friendship" based on pity. If someone doesn't want me, then that may hurt me, but there is really nothing to do but to accept it. So if I want to teach my son to deal [contd.] – user4758 May 13 '16 at 16:16
  • [contd.] with adult life, I think I should help him find new friends. -- I am sure that the rejection is not a misunderstanding. I witnessed several phone calls my son made to his friends, and there was no possibility to misunderstand the clearly stated wish not to have him around. Also, this has been going on for almost two months now, and I'm sure any misunderstanding would have sorted itself out by now. – user4758 May 13 '16 at 16:16
1

At this age, it would not be meddling to reach out to a parent to propose a play date. Usually at this age, the parent control's the child's social calendar, so it's quite reasonable to ask the parent if it would be okay to invite (generic name of child -- e.g. Tom) over to play next weekend.

Better yet, how about a bowling party?

When planning a party, it's common to email or phone the parents of the potential guests to find a day and time that the largest number of children can make.

For a medium-sized group, it can be a good idea to try to mix genders. At that age, my boys still invited a couple of girls to their birthday parties.

Alternatively, you could invite everyone in the class.

This might be a good time to get involved in more organized group activities such as gymnastics, swimming lessons, ice skating, etc. You could also visit your local animal shelter once a week. Or get a new pet. (We've just gotten our first hamster - exciting!)

0

Don't let John skip your waiting list.

You've said it yourself: The climbing club is an additional complication. You're bending the rules in order to accommodate your son (who doesn't even know you're doing this, I assume).

But you can't make Tom and John play with your son if they prefer to play just with each other. I think that trying to maneuver them into spending time with your son is a bad idea. (though understandable). It's even worse because you're using your position in the climbing club to achieve it, which could lead to all kinds of trouble.

It's neither your job nor in your power to fix these friendships (they sound broken from what you describe, or at least very cooled off). If I were you, I'd try to not get involved in this. Maybe things will sort themselves out once Tom moves away - John will be left a singleton and your child will be there to fill the gap. Maybe by that time, your boy will have found another good friend and won't be interested any more.

What you could do in that regard is facilitate situations in which your boy gets to meet other kids like Tabatha suggests. By that I don't mean trying to get other kids to spend time with your child; I mean taking your child to places where he can meet other kids, so a friendship with one of them can form naturally. Maybe you can get him interested in a new sport and have him join a local club, have him join the boy scouts, or find some other club he could be interested in, and see if you can get him to try it out. The import thing is that it's some kind of local activity where they see each other regularly, so that there's a chance for a new friendship to form.

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