When a girl doesn’t want to play with her friends

September 19, 2011

Q. Our 3-year-old daughter goes to an excellent day care/preschool three days a week and her teacher tells us that she seems very happy at school and gets along quite well with her classmates.

She said that our daughter can be hesitant to join in on their activities, however, and I’ve noticed that she also hangs back when we see these kids outside school, even though some of them are her friends.

At home, however, she complains bitterly about the girls in her class, and about the teacher, too. She says they pick on her, exclude her and bully her, and that the teacher doesn’t intervene when she tells her about it and that she won’t even call on her at circle time.

I don’t know whether my daughter complains to us because she tends to be dramatic; because she likes to dwell on her hurt feelings or because the comments are true. But I try to act caring, to be responsive and to make sure that her classmates don’t pick on her. I also try not to sound alarmed, but I’m sure that she has picked up on my concern.

I did once speak to the lead teacher about the unkind things that some children were saying about my daughter, and she said this is common among 3-year-olds; that the teachers always stop this talk when they hear it and that they also tell the children to use kind words and to include everyone in their games.


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

Should I do more to help her in school? Or less? And should I speak to her teachers again?

A. It’s important to tell the teacher — and especially the head teacher — what your child is saying because children usually speak the truth, even if they can’t express it very well.

There could be other reasons for your child to complain however. Sometimes a child complains to get attention. And sometimes she complains because her excellent school has taken a wrong turn. A new director with a wimpy philosophy can undermine a school’s reputation in just a couple of years, and a teacher who needs more experience can mess up a classroom much faster.

You won’t know why this school bothers your child so much until you watch the class in action, even if you have to take time off at work. Just be sure to ask for permission from the head teacher before you show up, and if she says no, be wary. A good school usually lets parents observe because they know that a parent understands the quirks of her own child best and that she probably knows how to get around them.

You may not want to observe at the school because you think that the teacher and the children will behave beautifully if you’re in the room — even if you’re sitting quietly in the back row. But that’s not true. They’ll forget all about you in 10 to 15 minutes.

After that, you may find out that the school is as good as the Web site says it is, but that the teacher is a mess and either she or your child has to go. Or you’ll realize that your daughter isn’t as mature as her classmates and that she’s not ready for pre-K. Or that your daughter is a sensitive child who might do better in a calm Waldorf school pre-K; that she’s a worker bee who would thrive in a Montessori school, or that a Reggio Emilia school would be best because she loves art so much. Every child is special, each in her own way, and all of them need schools that are right for them.

Because there is no aptitude test to help you figure out which school is best for your child, you can only read her cues carefully, then observe at other schools to find a better fit.

If however, you find that your daughter is really happy in her school, but that she likes the attention she gets when she tattles, then you’ll have to change your responses to her calamitous reports.

When she tattles about life’s inequities, ask her what she’s going to do about them because she’s old enough to make a few choices. When she says that a friend was mean to her, ask her if that child could be sad or sick, because parents can teach empathy to young children more easily than they can teach the ABCs. And if she won’t play with her friends, let her know that this could hurt their feelings. You want her to think about the feelings of others, so she won’t think about her own feelings so much.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Kelly will have a live Q&A at noon Sept. 22 at washingtonpost.com/advice

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