Making Friends on the Playground; A Crash-Course on Social Cues

Who will be your companion on this ladybug ride of life?
Who will be your companion on this ladybug ride of life?

Humans are social creatures, and when you consider the crazy jungle from which we emerged, it’s easy to understand why…

No matter how many world-class athletes we churn out, our species is never going to get the gold medal for brute strength. Even a weak bear could wipe the floor with one of our heavyweight boxers. The scrawniest, most laughed-out-of-gym-class tiger could shred a clawless human in under five minutes. Our teeth are laughable. Our weak, mostly hairless, bodies aren’t even built to handle diverse weather conditions… One hurricane, snowstorm, or heatwave and we are goners.

No matter how many Ironman competitions we dream up, our strength truly comes in numbers. We put our collective heads together and figured out tools, weapons, shelter and fire. Our safety always depended upon being part of a larger group–being exiled in the olden days meant imminent death. This is undoubtedly why “fitting in” is so psychologically important to us, why we will jump on crazy fashion trends and scramble to figure out the latest slang (“See, I look your tribe and know what’s going on!”).

Anyone who regularly watches “Surviver” has figured out that winning is not about being the strongest, most athletic member. In fact, those guys are usually seen as threats and promptly voted off the island. The key to survival instead lies in being just fit enough to not be a major liability to your group while having the right social skills to make strategic alliances. Watch any season to see this theory play out. No wonder the desire to be liked, or at least respected, is so hardwired.

Social skills, however, are not easy to master. So many social qualities must be in proper balance: You need to be friendly, but not so friendly that you come off as needy or desperate (read: low status). You should be nice, but not so nice that you scream “DOORMAT.” You must be aggressive enough to make friends without coming on too strong. You want to be confident, but not cocky, unless you can pull off that cockiness well enough to look like an impressive Alpha (a high-stakes gamble).

The trickiness of social maneuvers never been more apparent to me than it has been lately, while watching my toddler confront the playground.

She is, literally, a baby in the jungle (gym). She hits the ground running, eager to not only tear up the playground equipment (toddlers have endless supplies of energy and will start chewing up the furniture if you don’t let them out) but also to make new friends. She sees other kids and her eyes light up like a Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. She wants desperately to bond with them, yet has no idea how to properly do it, and observing her attempts is painful.

Sometimes, she runs up with both of her arms starched forward like Frankenstein and tries to tackle-hug the nearest kid. This usually results in frightening the other kid, who runs away screaming while my daughter looks stunned and saddened. After this approach failed enough times, she tried running up and shoving another kid in what I can only assume was a friendly attempt to wrestle, but which had much the same result as the intimidating hug: the other kid panicked and ran away screaming, leaving my daughter Brontë looking confused and disappointed.

Having established these unproductive extremes, Brontë tried a new approach: attempting to join in whatever the other kids were doing. Unfortunately, her method consisted of running at another kid and grabbing whatever toy was in the other kid’s hands. This made the other kid suspect larceny and run screaming after his or her toy, which made Brontë think they were having a fun game of keep-away and she would then race in circles, giggling, until suddenly she found herself being yelled at by mommy and the other kid’s parents. Poor thing…

Seeing this all play out, I try to ride the line between giving my child instruction and letting her figure it out as she goes along. I don’t want to micromanage her, yet it’s hard to watch your kid run into your arms, sobbing, because no one wants to play with her. It brings up your own, deeply buried memories of social rejection and confusion. You want to spare your kids that agony yet know it is inevitable in the crazy, complicated process of human interaction. I’m guessing the best route is coaching her on the sidelines, comforting her when she is hurt, and stepping in whenever the toddlers get violent.

The worst manifestation of Brontë’s awkward social attempts had to be her sand-in-the-eyes phase. During that phase, whenever we were at a playground with a sandbox, she would walk up to other kids, who were happily playing with shovels and buckets at making lumps of sand and whatever else kids think is a good time, work her way into the group, happily play along for a bit, then… invariably… pick up a fistful of sand and chuck it square into another kid’s face. She would beam as though she had just come up with the best joke ever while the other kid would scream at the top of his or her lungs because they had sand in their eyes, I would jump up and yell at Brontë to NEVER do that, while the other parents looked at me like I obviously let my kids torture puppies at home, apologize to the parents, make Brontë apologize to the other kid, and march her straight back to the car.

I have no idea what she was thinking with this move. It didn’t seem intentionally aggressive. Maybe she thought that since splashing water in a pool is fun, splashing sand in a sandbox should be even more fun. Maybe she just did it because she’s two and likes to see sand fly in the air.

Whatever her theory was, it was extremely difficult to talk her out of it. She kept trying her Awesome Sand Move every time we went to the park, apparently thinking THIS time she would run into a kid with the right sense of humor to appreciate its genius. All in all, she probably pulled it and lost her playground privileges about seven times before she finally cut it out. Maybe it would have been quicker if we believed in spanking, but we are still trying to hold out on that.

Over time, she has gotten better at approaching other children. She sidles up near them at an angle, watches their faces for signs of friendliness and approachability, and slowly reaches out in more appropriate social gestures (like, “I like your shirt”). Sometimes, she makes a friend. Sometimes, they push away from her but do it politely. Sometimes, other kids are just flat mean. So much depends, really, on the personality of whatever kid she is approaching. Some are shy, some are good-natured, and some… I’m just going to come out and say it… some kids are just jerks.

There, I said it. Sometimes Brontë will be walking along, smiling, and some other little brat will run up and kick her in the head before laughing hysterically as she cries. I always intervene in these cases, because someone just kicked my baby, and there are a range of parental responses. Sometimes the other kid’s parents are apologetic, sometimes they have an inexplicably bad attitude, but typically they are too busy punching away on their phones to be aware of what’s going on.  Maybe that’s why the kid is acting that way in the first place, I don’t know. I don’t know how much of bullying is innate and how much has a logical, environmental explanation. All I know is that at a tender age, some kids seem very sweet while others are already downright nasty.

When my daughter gets kicked out of nowhere, punched, or otherwise rejected, she is heartbroken and I am livid. She sobs, and looks up at me with confused eyes, eyes that seem to say, “Why did they do that? What did I do wrong?” I look down at her, give her a reassuring hug, and want to explain that, well, some people are just jerks.

Maybe it’s insecurity or misplaced anger, or maybe a bad temperament, but some people are just plain mean. They like to bully other people just because they can and love to inject a little crappiness into other people’s lives. I want to tell her, “Kid, you didn’t do anything wrong. That guy is just a dick, probably  the same dick that is going to flip you off from his car in twenty years. That catty little snatch that just laughed at your shirt will probably grow up to make passive -aggressive comments about whether  you if you really think you need another slice of pizza. I’d love to tell you the secret of being friends with everyone, but in my experience, some people are just going to be jerks and there’s nothing you can do but move on.”

But not everyone is like that, thank god. I have, pictured above and below, the evidence of one of Brontë’s recent social victories. She ran into this other little girl on the playground. They started giggling and running in circles around each other before holding hands and playing on the ladybug bouncer toy together. Maybe they bonded because they both have curly hair, or because they are about the same age, or because they both share the same bounding enthusiasm, I don’t know, but she played with this little girl for about two hours and you can see the beaming contentment on her face.

Ah… isn’t it great when people get along? Why can’t we always act like this?

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There’s nothing better than a shared journey on a beloved insect.
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