Yesterday afternoon I ate lunch with L. and then stood on the blacktop watching the kids race around the play structure, all of them engaged in various chaotic forms of organized play. As I watched them I realized that not only is it hard to see your own kids grow up, but it's also actually kind of hard to watch other people's kids grow up. With the exception of four kids who are new this year, I've known the entire third-grade class since they were five-year-old kindergarteners--such small, suddenly "big" kids, walking into the doors of the school for the first time, with their ridiculously large backpacks and their nap mats clutched under their arms. Now, three years later, they have sprouted up into real big kids, all arms and legs, complicated games, and some not-so-nice behaviors to match.
Something happens in third grade, I think. The cliques that I already saw forming in second grade have not only solidified, but they are also accompanied by melodramatic popularity contests.
"I'm not speaking to K.," a girl told me this morning, as I helped L. unpack his backpack. "And none of my friends are speaking to K.'s friends, either."
"Hmmm." I answered, not sure what else to say. The girl stomped off, chin held high, and as she passed K. I saw her lean in a little so she couldn't help but knock K. on her shoulder as she went by.
I see whispered conferences between kids in the classroom and lines to and from the cafeteria.
At recess I watched a boy plant a heavy push on the small of the back of another kid, and send him hurtling down the slide. The boy sprang up, fists raised, ready to defend himself, but the other boy had already closed ranks with his buddies and they raced off, an intimidating line of four boys heading for the far corner of the field. The pushed boy ran off to find his buddies and I could tell they were hatching some type of retaliatory action plan.
A group of five girls, who seemed to be playing some type of horse show game by the play structure tossed their hair, put hands on hips, and flirted--flirted!--with two nearby boys. When another girl strolled by, one of them adopted a classic in-your-face pose, warding her away from their little circle of friends. It made me sad and a little angry and a little confused. Being the mom of a kid who gets "picked on" has made me more than a little defensive and protective of the kids on the "wrong side" of the schoolyard social scene.
I don't expect all kids to get along all of the time, especially when they're around each other five days a week for six hours a day. But I'm wondering what's happened to these once easygoing, peace and love and friendship kids I've known for three years now. Not only has L. recently had a brush with bullying at school, but I've heard tales from other parents about fights and quarrels--mini-soap-opera dramas that are somehow playing out at lunch and recess and line-up time. I know most of these kids are nice kids at heart, and well-brought-up, and kind. But something happens as they grow and collide with the school world around them--a few bad influences and they stray, testing limits and flexing muscles they didn't know they had. I think we work so hard when our kids are smaller to instill in them lessons about sharing and kindness and politeness, and then we forget to give them much-needed refresher courses as they grow older. School really is practice for the real world, in more ways than we think.
I've been brainstorming some things we can do to pave the way for smoother social interactions for our kids in elementary school and beyond:
Talk with your kids often about who they play with at school, and how.
Volunteer at your child's school as often as you can, or as often as they'll let you. There's no replacement for seeing firsthand what the social dynamics are at school. Even if you just spend a half hour quietly organizing books in the classroom, or working on a bulletin board, you can learn tons about the classroom environment and the other kids by just observing and listening.
Talk to your kids about how possible playground and classroom scenarios might play out. We often write "social stories" for L. about situations he might find himself in. While these are invaluable for kids on the spectrum, parents of all kids should talk with their children about hypothetical situations they might find themselves in so that they'll know how to handle them when they arise. This might be a good way to encourage kids to take action when they see unacceptable behavior at school.
Remember that teaching kids good behavior at school is not a static process. Reinforce the values you teach at home--constantly. Just because your kid shared well when he was four doesn't mean he will still share well at six or seven or ten. Give your kids mini "refresher courses" when needed about how to behave when playing. As kids grow older, the rules change and shift as the dynamics between them change. Adapt accordingly your lessons on fundamental values that are important to you.
And finally, a friend suggested to me (as a solution to the bullying problem at L.'s school) that the school place responsibility for monitoring behavior on the kids themselves. Suggest to your school that older kids--fifth graders, for instance--be in charge of "peer modeling" behavior for the younger grades. Nothing can replace the safe supervision of an adult, but kids are more likely to be in tune with what's happening on the playground and in other situations where an adult isn't always available. If you teach kids to be responsible for each other, they will also learn to be more responsible to each other.
And wouldn't that make for a better world?