I had no one to eat lunch with and no one to play with at recess.

“How was your day?” I asked K as we walked home.

Okay,” she answered automatically and then retracted, “Well, sort of not okay.”

“What happened?” I asked very casually.

“I had no one to sit with at lunch and then I couldn’t find anyone to play with at recess.  Everyone ran away from me.”

Of course, this type of statement sends a Jewish mom running to find a therapist.  (For my kid, if not for myself).  But I am not the same person I was before I did ludicrous amounts of research for my book on bullying, and I instantly recalled a conversation I had with Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain and Mom, They’re Teasing Me, among others.

“Don’t interview for pain,” Thompson told me.  “Don’t ask questions that lead your child to tell a story of victimization.  Find a way for her to tell a story of strength and solutions.  And do not ask every single day how things went that day.”

With that in mind, I bit my tongue and avoided asking the outright questions, “What happened?  Did you have a fight with someone?  Who did your friends sit with at lunch?

Instead, I asked her what her favorite part of her lunch was (Hershey kisses).  “Did anyone else at your table have a chocolate dessert?” I asked, and she explained that all of her friends were crowded together at another table and they said there was no room for her, so she went to a different table and sat on a bench by herself.

“That happens sometimes,” I mused.  “It isn’t very fun, but it gives you a chance to find someone new to talk to.  Your whole class can’t fit at one table, so there must have been some people at the second table sitting across from you on the other bench.”

There were.  She named a few kids who she doesn’t hang out with much, and my guess is she retreated into her own world while she ate.

“Well, K,” I suggested, “If you find yourself at a table with them again, what is something you would like to talk about?”

She thought about a few things that could be conversation starters.  I could see how Michael Thompson was right, because our conversation was focused on ways to make the situation better, as opposed to me prying about why her friends didn’t want to sit with her.  My first inclination was to ask questions that would have made K feel like there was something wrong with her, but with Thompson’s voice in my ears, I avoided that minefield.

Then we started talking about recess.

“I kept going up to groups of people to play, but they ran off.”

“Like they were playing tag, and you were it?” I wondered.

“No, it wasn’t a game.  They just wanted to play by themselves.”

For a moment, I was stumped.  How could I respond?  And why didn’t they want to play with K?  But before my own anxiety could rise too much, I remembered that K had been the odd woman out at lunch, and sometimes if a kid isn’t already part of a group during the transition from lunch to recess, then there is an increased likelihood that the kid will have a harder time at recess, too.  It was not surprising that K had a rough afternoon; she got into a bit of a pickle and couldn’t seem to shake it.  Not the end of the world, just a bad afternoon.  No need to overreact.

“So, what did you decide to do with yourself during recess?  Did you climb?  Go on the swings?  I really like to have time to myself, actually,” I told her.

“Well,” she began to giggle, “I created two imaginary friends named Sarah and Sally, and we pretended that a monster was trying to knock us down the slide.”

Should I be sad that my daughter had to invent imaginary friends?  Or should I be glad that she found a way to manage the situation?  Better to focus on the positives and give her approval for doing something constructive.

“Sounds fun,” I commented.

“It was!” she said.  During the rest of the walk home, she talked animatedly about Sarah and Sally, and we invited them into the house to have a snack with us.  There was no moping, no sadness, no self-pity about the afternoon.

As I sit here overanalyzing my child’s life (a requirement for a mom blogger) instead of getting ready for bed, I am left with two thoughts.  One is that I am really grateful to have some tools to help me discuss painful social encounters with my daughter.

The second is that I will monitor the situation by checking in with K in a few days to see how lunch and recess are going.  Imaginary friends are a good solution for an occasional rough afternoon, which is all this probably was, but not a good long-term plan.

Honestly, K seems to be doing fine.  She is excited to go to school in the mornings; she gets invited to play dates regularly, and she goes to birthday parties.  These are all ways that parents can reassure themselves that a kid is functioning well socially.

Chances are, a week from now, this will be another data point in the ups and downs of the social life of a second-grader.

I'll remind myself of that as I sprinkle ativan in my coffee until this resolves.

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    It is so hard to know what to say, how to say it, and how far to press for information. We just had an incident where my 2nd grader was blackmailed into licking dirt off a slide (other child told him he would tell the teacher my son had done something if he didn't do it). It was awful, because this one was so obviously bad for his feelings, and how to spin it positively?? But at least he tells me! My older son was practically tormented at lunch in 2nd grade, and I only found out about it last year, when he was in 4th, from one of the lunch ladies! Up until that moment, the principal had lead me to believe my son was just blowing up and yelling for no good reason. And I took her word for it, because my son didn't tell me otherwise! It upsets me so much, because I wish I had pried more. :(

  • In reply to angelbuttons77:

    It is good that he tells you about it! And yes, it is good to pry when things seem off. I am learning to balance a little prying with a little restraint. So tough being a parent, right?

  • I'll bookmark this post and refer to it for the next 10-12 years. Such good advice. I can't wait until your book comes out.

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    Thanks, Jimmy. I think the best thing that came out of writing the book was that I learned so much and can try to apply it when I am in a pickle.

  • This is the worst part of being a parent. I've heard those words more times than I care to remember!

  • In reply to kirby:

    Yep, Kirby, this isn't the first time Katie has said this type of thing. And it won't be the last.

  • not a dad yet, but a teacher, and it stinks that these things happen...but wow, I wish half my parents were like you, definitely great advice to all parents and it was great how you turned it into a positive teaching moment for you and your child!

  • In reply to Keep:

    It did go against my natural inclinations, so it is something that takes practice! Thanks for the kind words. Carrie

  • I applaud you as a mom. I do all the above that you suggested not to. What a fabulous way to handle the situation. I hope I can remember to do the same.

  • In reply to Yoga Mom:

    Yoga Mom, we have ALL done all the above! You are in good company. Just trying some new approaches, and they seemed to work well!

  • Carrie, beautiful. I hear these words too. The problem is that we have been so culturally trained to Empathize and Feel With Our Children that we have no good responses at all, just ways to increase victimization as you so well put it. Thanks for the new tools and the perspective. My daughter is hard of hearing, a CI wearer; she has several good friends, but there are definitely many days when she is on the outside looking in. I love your daughter's solutions to her situation, and the fact that you were able to draw them out, and give her a chance to revel in her success for a moment and introduce her invisible friends to you.

  • In reply to Julie:

    Thanks, Julie. Katie has amblyopia and had to wear a patch for a long time, and we got lots more practice than we wanted with awkward social encounters. All the best to you and your daughter.

  • Wow - you handled that well.
    I found that sometimes it was more in the child's head than in reality, so perhaps check with the teacher too.
    One thing I saw was that if I ever went into the classroom (to read a story or help with a project) my kid became the most popular kid for about a minute. It was enough time however, to arrange some one-on-one playdates, and it's then that the other kids can bond and perhaps stop ignoring your little one.

  • In reply to Expat in Chicago:

    Thanks, Expat. Yep, it is always good not to overreact to initial claims of isolation. You are absolutely right about going into the classroom-- it is a great thing to do. Katie has Brownies today and I am one of the troop leaders, so it will be a great chance for me to observe things. Thanks for reading!

  • Ah, poor Katie, I remember that feeling well!

    I was badly bullied when I was 10 - 12 years old. It's horrible for any child to go through. One thing which my parents did which was really wonderful, was to create more one-on-one time for me. Sadly sometimes you can't always fix the subtle exclusionary forms of bullying, but creating positive social interactions outside of school with family or with a different group of kids can go a long way to counteract the harmful effects.

  • In reply to Elley:

    Ellen, I'm sorry to hear you were bullied. You are absolutely right that it helps to create positive social interactions with family or other groups of kids. That's why Katie does Brownies, soccer, etc. it's good to have multiple social outlets. Thanks for reading!

  • In reply to Elley:

    I mean, Elley! Damn autocorrect!

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    What great advice! I will definitely be filing this away for future use. Great post!

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