What we're teaching our kids

I read an interesting question on Facebook yesterday: Do you make your kids go to playdates and birthday parties when they don't want to go?

I was shocked at what the moms, for the most part, replied. The gist: No. They don't make their kids go. Why would they make their kids do something they didn't want to? Kids have relatively little choice about how they spend their time, so this is where they get to choose. And so on.

That sounds reasonable, right? Of course--until you stop and think about the other child.

There are kids out there who want and need friends. They reach out and invite children over. And no one says yes. There are kids who invite the whole class to birthday parties. One or two kids show up. How are those children supposed to feel? And how are their parents supposed to feel?

It's devastating, let me tell you.

Here's how social dynamics often work with children. The group wonders if so-and-so eats weird food for lunch. A powerful child comments on it. Everyone else piles on, hoping to curry favor with the popular child. Pretty soon, the kid with the "weird" lunch is sitting alone at recess, counting down the minutes until it's over.

It can happen over anything. A child doesn't wear the right shoes. His voice is too loud. Her teeth look funny. He likes things that girls like. Pick a difference, any difference.

With one of my children, the powerful girl in their group of four friends convinced the others--in second grade--to ditch my daughter at recess. They told her they weren't playing together, and that she could just go off into another corner of the playground.

"They said it with smiles on their faces," my daughter, then seven, told me.

That night, I invited the ringleader of that cruelty exercise over to a playdate. I wanted to watch how she and my daughter interacted, to see if there was anything I could help my daughter manage better. I also wanted to show her how fun, funny, and creative my child is. I wanted to support what could have been a friendship.

The mother said no. "It's complicated," she said. "I'm sure you understand."

I do understand that these things are complicated. I understand that not all children will want to play together at first. But learning to get along with others, to find what is interesting and special about each person, is a fundamental life skill. Being kind to others is absolutely vital.

And it makes me sick that so many mothers are giving their child the choice to opt out of kindness. They are wrong. Terribly wrong. This is why there is so much unkindness at school, and so much bullying. We are giving our kids the choice to reject other people.

If you want your kids to have more choices, take them to the library or bookstore and tell them they can read whatever they want. Let them choose what the family is having for dinner. Let them help prepare it. Let them choose which person they're going to be kind to.

But for crying out loud, don't make it seem like rejecting another child's friendly overtures is some sort of noble or enlightened choice. It's not. It's mean and selfish. Unless there are safety issues, it's a way to send a message to your child that you don't have to care about anyone unless it's an easy thing for you to do.

Loving other people isn't always easy. But if we don't teach our kids how to love--or at least respect--their fellow human beings when they are small, they will never learn this.

If you want to create a world where kindness is the rule, this is a good place to start. I have a much better understanding, though, of why the playground has turned into such a difficult place for so many children. We parents are letting this happen.

I love my girl

This is the face of a child who's been rejected. This is the girl who told her sister this week, "My soul is broken."

As beautiful as the face is, her heart is even more beautiful. She would give you the last dollar in her piggy bank if she thought you needed it.

The kids who exclude her and say unkind things are missing out on a great deal. They're also enabled by their parents.

I know we're all doing our best here, and that balancing a job and family and all those other things is difficult. On this, though, I hope people rethink their knee-jerk response.

Don't make it easy for your children to be unkind. Inspire them to look below the surface and discover something lovable about someone who challenges them. Teach them to be the kids who make the world a safer, gentler place for others. If this is what we want the future to be, it's our job to make that happen.