When your kid isn't invited

Experts say teaching children to react to the reality of peer exclusion now will serve them well later.

Story highlights

  • Toddlers learning how to interact with their peers exclude each other on the tot lot
  • Kids need to be praised for their efforts, not their innate abilities
  • Make sure your kids have other nonschool friends and activities they enjoy
Olivia Nakamura can still remember the neighbor who always hosted a barbecue in his front yard for his son's birthday party. He'd invite all the kids on their suburban Seattle block, except her son and the Asian-American children who lived there.
"I think it was racially motivated since he never invited the other family as well," says Nakamura (not her real name), who has since returned with her husband and two sons to her home state of Hawaii. "My son was only 3 years old, so I just told him they were having a family party."
Welcome to exclusion on the play date circuit.
What should parents do when someone else won't let their kid play with yours? No matter who you are, some parents won't like your family.
It's not just having the "right" skin color, ethnicity or religion anymore. These days, parents might be nervous about your two-mommy family, the sugary soda you let your kid drink, the peanut butter or other food that might kill their kid, your refusal to vaccinate, your habit of cursing or the war games your son is always playing.
Or maybe they won't say why.
Maybe it doesn't matter.
Toddlers learning how to interact with their peers exclude each other on the tot lot. What really matters is how you teach your kid to react to that reality now. Otherwise they'll come home from college sobbing when they don't get into their first-choice classes.
The birthday party invite. Once your kid's circle of potential friends expands to 30 classmates, some parents won't invite the entire class to the birthday party. It's too expensive, their two-bedroom condo won't fit the entire class or perhaps your kids don't like each other. Or maybe they don't like you. That means Janie or Bobby will not get an invitation.
If your child notices the exclusion, address it but don't dwell on it too much, says Ashley Merryman, co-author of "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children." "You can say something like, 'It would have been nice to be invited, but tomorrow someone else will have a party," says Merryman. "Let's go to the pool or the park." The message: Brush the dirt off your knees and move on. We have other fun stuff we can do. (Be honest with yourself. Aren't you glad you didn't have to buy another present?)
Empower your kid. What do you do when your kid falls flat on his face on the playground, and everyone laughs and calls him "Trippy" for the day? There's a key distinction between the kids who wear that nickname for the day and the kids who wear that name into high school. Research shows that the child who blamed the bullies for doing something wrong didn't stay in the bullied position, says Merryman. He knows they were mean and shakes it off. The child who gets bullied long term thinks the teasing is his fault: "They laughed because I'm a klutz," he thinks.
Don't reassure your kid he's such a great kid. Of course he's great but you're actually telling him he can't change his fate, says Merryman. "Think about it from the kid's perspective: 'I'm really a wonderful kid and they still hate me, what chance do I have?'" says Merryman. "Parents can change that dynamic by telling their kid, 'They did a bad thing. You did a klutzy thing but you can be different tomorrow.'"
Overall, kids need to be praised for their efforts, not their innate abilities. "The more you praise them for who they are, the more you are telling them that success depends on innate skill rather than what they do," she says. "You are telling them not to try. It's really hard to change who you are, not what you do."
Be a mensch. Sometimes the discrimination is obvious and requires you discuss it with your child. But take a breath first. Don't start the conversation with your kid when you are feeling the intense anger or pain of the exclusion. That makes the conversation more about you and your feelings of rejection than teaching your child how to handle the exclusion. Be thoughtful and calm with your response, making sure you're teaching them how to act effectively against bigotry.
Before you act, make sure the bigotry occurred the way you think it did. Even when you think it's obvious racism or other insidious discrimination, sometimes it's not. At the Jewish day schools where noted psychologist Wendy Mogel consults, she often notices historical splits between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic children. (Ashkenazis are traditionally of Western and Central European descent while Sephardic Jews trace their roots to Spain and Portugal.) When the Ashkenazi children weren't invited to a Sephardic child's birthday party, the default explanation was racism. When asked, the Sephardic parent explained that they didn't think the other families would want to come.
"If that happens for the parent, you could be a mensch and make an overture to the family, understanding that family's discomfort," says Mogel, author of the crossover best-seller, "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children." "If they reject it, just let it go. You're teaching your children character."
Be proactive. Avoid misunderstandings by educating your child's teacher (and therefore the students and parents) before anyone has a chance to say something offensive, suggests Stephanie Meade, founder and editor-in-chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine featuring articles about raising multicultural and multilingual children and parenting around the world. She and her husband are raising their children largely in his Muslim faith.
Meade sees it as their role as parents to ensure their child's identity is positively represented at their preschool. "For our main religious holiday (Eid, to celebrate the end of Ramadan) we brought in a fun book to read and special treats for the kids to share," says Meade. "We gave each of the teachers a nice plant. I am pretty sure everyone at their preschool has a pretty positive association with our religion now as a result."
Make explanations age-appropriate. When Kelly Wickham's son was in second grade, she learned that his friend's mother wouldn't let him come over to play because he read Harry Potter books. Wickham, who writes the Mocha Momma blog, says the other mother took that to mean that "we allowed witchcraft in our house."
"My son was too oblivious to be devastated by this but he kept asking when John (not his real name) could come over and play, thinking we couldn't come up with a time to get together," says Wickham, a Springfield, Illinois, mother of four (mostly grown) children.
By the time Morgan had turned 12, he started asking questions about the incident. "We discussed at length why we can't be friends with everyone if people aren't open to differences" says Wickham. "This led to a great conversation about differences and biases, and all the -isms that prevent humans from understanding one another."
Create your own fun. If your children don't fit into the dominant culture at school, don't make them feel like losers. Instead, make sure they have other nonschool friends and activities they enjoy. Football and cheerleading aren't for everyone, but there's no reason to let the kids on top define what's fun. Your child may prefer an art class, a reading group, a religious social justice movement, a political campaign, creating video games, hiking or dance.
"If they're doing an activity they enjoy with students from other schools who don't have preconceived notions about them, they can gain confidence both in their skills and in their relations with other kids," says Alexandra Robbins, author of "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth." "Praise them for thinking differently, creatively, out of the box. Kids need to see that they don't need to be, act or look like everyone else in order to have a solid relationship, and that can start at home."
When to worry. It's OK to seek help when you think something's wrong in your child's world. Worry about your child's mental health when you see real symptoms, Mogel says. That includes them losing pleasure in things they used to enjoy, over- or under-eating, becoming socially isolated, coming to your bed at night, complaining of tummy aches, or for little children, chewing on their shirts.
Don't argue about a child's life. Some parents exclude to protect their children's health, whether it's deadly allergies or cancer. Chrystine Ammari's 10-year-old son has battled a malignant brain tumor twice and has a weakened immune system. The Fullerton, California, mom won't allow play dates with kids who haven't been vaccinated or enroll him or his siblings in a classroom where any children haven't been vaccinated.
"The risks of not vaccinating to my child can be devastating, with death being the obvious answer," says Ammari, an original member of 46 Mommas, an advocacy group for childhood cancer. The name of the group, whose members shave their heads to draw attention to the disease, refers to the number of U.S. children diagnosed with cancer each weekday. "But it's also the risk of what they may have been exposed to. Most unvaccinated kids aren't going to carry a disease, and most don't, but that small percent scares the crap out of me."
Take a look at yourself. If your kids get out of hand or won't listen to adult directions, they're not going to get invited to my sister-in-law Noemi's house to play in Clovis, California. (Even my brother and I behave better around her.) With a husband who travels a lot and three children, she doesn't have time to clean up whatever bad habits badly behaved kids are going to teach my superpolite niece and two nephews.
"There was one little girl who would talk back to her parents and say bad words, and my daughter (who was 5) started doing it when we spent time with her," says Noemi Hetter. "I immediately told her to stop and asked her why she was doing it. She said, 'I don't know, I was just doing what my friend was doing.' It didn't take long for me to stop bringing my daughter around this little girl."