Children are cruel and one of the sadder moments of a parent’s life is helping a distraught child learn the difference between a friend and a playmate.
It really is simple when the kids are very small because of the large tendency to practice parallel play, in which the kids veer erratically between playing by themselves and playing with one another. Two little boys can happily play their own backyard games apart from one another and then veer together to play with one another for a period, returning again to solo play after several minutes. But as they develop emotionally and begin to actually interact with one another, then they begin to gain a measure of the other’s personality and character. Is he good at sharing? Will he tease maliciously? Does he get aggressively physical and is there some control over his impulses? Kids do take a measure of one another and even preschoolers can assess that he’s mean and I don’t want to play with him.
But there are other issues that only become apparent as kids grow and these generally pertain to character and emotional development. The covert cruelty raises its head and the damage begins to appear with the hurt child’s feelings, self-confidence and self-worth. It might not manifest itself directly but come out in other ways, such as a markedly decreased ability to handle tasks and frustration, loss of sleep or increased aggressiveness to release the pressure. When the dam finally breaks and you determine that the others’ words are the source, then you can have the conversation about the difference between a friend and playmate.
One of the questions or comments is liable to be who else there might be with whom to play. You can walk through the list of the other kids and then ask, does this child speak this way or say these things? and progressively winnow through the cast of characters in your child’s life. Take a few moments to touch base on the real difference between friend and playmate – will a real friend turn the things that you’ve said against you? And if a child breaks that simple rule, is this a person with whom you want to play? Is the play so good that it’s worth the potential upset and hurt that the other child can cause?
When I’ve encountered the situations, I’ve tried to leave the final choice on whether to play with our child, with the child clearly understanding that this is potential price that has to come with this other kid. If it continues – and there have been moments when it has – then I’ve finally refused to let the child play with the other out of school. And in those rare circumstances, there really hasn’t been any complaint at all.