Dear Dr. G,
My children are 11 and 6 years old. My daughter (11) has a best friend with a younger brother about my son’s age. My son LOVES playing with this boy, and it seems to be mutual. Every time my daughter is invited over my son is a wreck if he doesn’t also get an invitation! He is too young for the events and sleepovers that his sister takes part in, but I hate to see him so sad. Of course I can’t insist that this mom invite both my kids but I don’t know what to do about the hours of agony when she doesn’t. Help!
Susannah in Leawood, KS
This can be heartbreaking, I know! Your son wants to be “big” like his sister and also wants to leave the house and play at a friend’s, especially one he likes so much.
You have a few options.
The easiest is to invite the little brother to play at your house when your daughter goes there. Your daughter and her friend will LOVE this idea because it means that there are no little-brother-nuisances around while they are hanging out. The other mom may love it as well, and even better – she may reciprocate when her daughter is at your house! Your son may complain because staying home may not seem as fun as going to his friend’s house. You may want to sweeten the deal with a short outing for the two boys.
Another option is to cultivate other friendships for your son. The more the kids in his “community” get used to playing with him, the more likely they are to bug their parents to call for a playdate at their house. It is tricky to teach kids that you can’t invite yourself to someone else’s house (it takes YEARS to develop that kind of manipulation successfully, most 6 year olds can’t pull it off), but enough invitations to your house and it will start to pay off in playdates out.
Last is the hardest thing, of course, and probably the most important. Your son will slowly learn that social disappointments happen, and that the world doesn’t end.
The inclination to protect our kids from social pain is in the DNA of most parents. An understandable desire, this is not a worthwhile goal. When our kids feel hurt or sad we need to show empathy. This validates their feelings and leaves them somewhat comforted. We should probably not try to FIX every situation that hurts them, however.
Learning to manage disappointment is a crucial life skill. When we try to fix it, our kids learn an expectation that every disappointment should be rectified. When we empathize and then move forward, our kids learn that disappointment can be managed and forgotten. You can guess which path makes for a stronger adulthood, even if it is a slightly more challenging childhood.