How to Help a Child Make Friends: Narrative Part 2

In my last post, I started talking about how, as adults, it can be tricky figuring out how to help a child make friends.  I used the example of Annie, a little girl who is behind socially.  She has reached the point where she cares about making friends (which can be a huge turning point for some children) but she is lacking the skills to keep them.  Annie got a Christmas present for her friend Cara, but it looked like she ended up giving it to someone else instead.

I believed Denise when she told me Annie gave it to her.  I was really disappointed that she acted so rashly; she and Denise aren't that close; they're not "BFFs."  This gift that would have meant a LOT to Cara was wasted.

Sure enough, Annie told my aide later, "I told Denise she could look at my necklace, and now she won't give it back."

My aide knew that wasn't true.  She knew she gave it to Denise, and I think most teachers are inclined to say, "Well, if you gave it to her, it's hers now.  You can't just take back a gift.  And lying about it is wrong."  Certainly, this is an important life lesson that people need to learn at some point.  And that's what my aide said.  But she knew, like I did, that there was something bigger going on here.  My aide said, "I can't believe she gave it to her and not Cara!  That would have meant so much to her!"  I agreed with my aide, "If I make Denise give back the necklace, and then she gives it to Cara, not only would Denise be mad at Annie, she might also be upset with Cara.  And Cara did nothing wrong.  In my mind, this necklace was tarnished now, no matter what else I did.

But I couldn't let it go.  I knew I had to act.  There was more than one lesson that Annie could learn that day, it didn't have to be one about not taking back gifts.  Maybe I could teach TWO girls a lesson that day.  "What if I just explained the situation to Denise?"  I asked my aide.  She looked at me doubtfully.  "What if I just say, she's been planning to give that necklace to Cara since before vacation.  She just, well, she just gave it to you without really thinking." 

So I pulled Annie aside and asked what really happened.  I wanted her to admit to her mistake (and that she lied about Denise just taking it) before I bailed her out.  She gave me the stubborn glare that she used to give when she was little and got into trouble.

"What happened with Denise at lunch?"  I pushed.  A leading question that made it sound almost like I knew already, and that almost makes it sound like I'm blaming Denise.  A very important child interrogation technique, haha.  She told me at lunch, Denise and her friend got into an argument, so Annie stepped in, said the wrong thing, and both girls ended up even angrier with each other AND her.  So I told Annie, "So you gave Denise the necklace because you wanted to make it up to her."  And she teared up.  "You DID give Denise the necklace, but now you know you made a mistake because you wanted to give it to Cara, right?"

"Yes, but I can't because Denise will be mad at me."

I was so proud of her for understanding that. "You can make it up to her some other way.  You don't have to give people necklaces to make them like you.  You've been planning to give Cara that necklace since before Christmas.  I'll talk to Denise."

So I did.  I told her what I told my aide.  And I said, "I kind of need you to be the bigger person here.  Because Annie is embarrassed and feels terrible.  She knows it's not cool to take back a gift that she gave you.  Is there another way she can make it up to you?"

"No, that's okay.  I have plenty of necklaces."

I decided to let that little bit of superiority go since it seemed like there were no hard feelings.  And Denise went back in the room, sat on the rug beside Annie, gently tapped her on the shoulder, and whispered something with a benevolent look on her face as she held the necklace out to her.  Annie sat with her head bowed for the rest of the lesson.  And the next day, Cara was back and Annie gave her her present.  They've both been wearing their necklaces since, and Denise has had no problems with either of them.

So what should you take away from this long story?

1.  Sometimes, when a child comes to you with a problem, what they SAY is not what is REALLY bothering them.  Sometimes we get angry at a child for "lying" to us.  But think about what Annie should have said instead of "Denise took the necklace."  She would have had to explain, "I made a rash decision that I now regret.  I didn't know how else to show her that I was sorry I made the situation with her friend worse when I should have minded my own business.  Giving her the necklace seemed to be the only solution at the time.  But now I realize I have no gift for my best friend Cara.  What should I do?"

2.  Know how to investigate.  A lot of teacher will say, "Don't tell me what SHE did, tell me what YOU did."  But if a child clams up and won't speak, that will never get them to open up.  If you are looking for information because you don't know for sure what happened, don't ask, "What did you do?"  Ask "What happened at lunch?"  That's specific enough that the child thinks, "It sounds like the teacher has heard that something bad happened at lunch; I'd better tell my side of things."  And sometimes, when a child is extra limited and/or you know one of the "key parties" involved, ask, "What happened with Denise at lunch?"  Then suddenly the child you are asking feels like the pressure is off THEM; you already suspect someone else, so they'll tell you some information.  Usually you would then go ask Denise, "What happened with Annie at lunch?" to get the other view, it just so happened that in this scenario that was unnecessary; I'd already heard enough from Denise and Annie admitted she made a mistake.

3.  A teacher needs to choose what life lesson to teach a child.  Obviously, you don't want to reward a child who has lied.  Usually.  But when I think of how this story would have played out if I had said, "Well, too bad, you shouldn't have given her that necklace or lied about it," where would she be?  Many children hold grudges at this age; she would have resented Denise for a while; especially if she kept wearing that necklace.  It could have led to more behavior problems for both girls.

4.  Know how to ask a child for a favor person to person, not teacher to student, to get more "buy in."  For my solution to this problem to work, I really needed Denise to forgive Annie.  Not just do as I commanded and give the necklace back.  So I brought 2 kid sized chairs out to the hall, told her on her way out the door, "Don't worry; you're not in trouble," and sat down so that I was at her level.  I explained the situation to her almost the same way as I did with the adult in my room.  A lot of times, we teachers are afraid to tell a student that another student made a mistake because it feels like a breach of confidentiality.  But let's face it.  Denise KNEW Annie made a mistake before I said so.  By being open with her, she could empathize better with the girl I was asking her to forgive.  And asking a question (how can she make it up to you) makes a person more likely to think about a situation critically, and feel more comfortable and in control than a command like, "give it back."  So by the time I was asking her, "what can she do to make it up to you," she had already forgiven her. 

5.  A teacher needs to decide what children really need, even more than they need to uphold rules.  Denise, in her own words, did not need that necklace.  Annie needed to feel the joy of giving her good friend a Christmas present.  Cara needed to feel like she had a thoughtful friend at her new school this year.


Annie left a note on my desk on Friday.  "Shoud I be frends with Lisa in thrid grade?"

Annie now trusts me enough to ask me for friendship advice because she knows that I am here to help her.

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