If you are a provider in a room full of preschool children, the chances that you have heard the words “you can’t come to my birthday party” are about as good as the chances that you have seen rain the past few weeks. I was in a preschool classroom recently and had an interesting observation. A three-year-old child walked into the classroom and went straight to the writing center. He announced to other children who also walked to the writing center that he was making a list of children that could come to his birthday party and another list of children who could not come. He started pointing to each child, saying their names and identifying which list that child would go on. He then made some marks on a piece of paper, depending on which list that child was going on. Naturally, as children heard their name being announced, they came to see what the child was doing so after just a minute or two, he had quite a crowd. Children who were on the list to be able to come to his party seemed proud, while the others seem disappointed. I began thinking.
While this interaction and similar interactions can be very hurtful, it’s also part of social development. Probably, this child won’t grow up to be a bully. He was starting to explore power within his friendships in the classroom. I noticed that all boys made the list of coming to the party and all girls (with the exception of one) made the list of not coming to the party. I wonder if this was a way of showing loyalty and protection of his relationships (versus intentionally trying to exclude children). That being said, caregivers and teachers have a role in supporting pro-social behavior; that is to help this child and others who have said similar things be aware of how their behavior can be hurtful.
As I was reflecting about this experience, I recalled a blog I had once read about “girl-power” that had five suggestions that would be very appropriate in an early childhood program or for those working with children (as this is not a gender specific issue):
- Teach language that is respectful. Help children hear the difference between “I don’t want to play with you” and “I’m not ready to play with anyone yet.”
- Show children how allowing others to play versus excluding could add to their play. “If you let a friend help you build the tower you may get it even taller and you’ll have a friend to help clean up.”
- Talk about qualities of being a good friend. (In the classroom mentioned above, the children are reminded to ask themselves two questions, “Is this kind? Is this safe?”)
- Ask children who are using hurtful language how they would feel. This isn’t to shame the child or single them out. Get on the child’s level, speak in a soft voice that only he or she can hear.
- Encourage children to play with new friends and try new things.
If wasn’t long before the teacher in the classroom walked over to the writing center to talk to the boy making the lists. She reminded him of the questions to ask; is this kind and is this safe? She also asked him how he would feel if his name was on a list to not go to a birthday party. He didn’t say anything for a moment and then said it would make him sad. The teacher asked how he thought the children were feeling who were on the list to not come to his party. He said, “Sad.” He then said all the children could come to his party and put the lists away before choosing another work.