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Are We Setting Our Kids Up for Social Incompetence?

Last week I posted a mother’s question about her daughter’s struggles to maintain friendships with other girls. Today I’m responding to some of the reader comments made in reaction to my advice.

While I certainly don’t have the one and only answer to this mother’s question, I want to show you what I think are the most important aspects of her story and, as a result, why I answered as I did. I also want to take this situation as an opportunity to challenge all of us about the advice we give our kids.

From my perspective, here’s what was different about her daughter’s situation—and, thus, more complicated.

  • This mother described a pattern where her daughter would become friends with a group of girls and then be rejected by them.
  • This rejection took place in and outside of school. (In an extended email from the mom, she mentions summer friends and swim team friends).
  • She never knew why and, understandably, her daughter didn’t want to talk to her mother about it.

I suggested that this girl at some point prepare to ask one of the girls why they had rejected her. I said it wouldn’t be easy and, yes, the girls could simply be jealous. But if there was a chance that there was something this girl was doing that was off-putting to the other girls, it was important to know that.

Some readers really disagreed with me because they felt I was setting the girl up for more rejection. My response to that is: The girl is being rejected anyway. Being continually rejected but taking no steps to figure out what is going on and doing nothing to advocate for herself takes all power away from the daughter.

In fact, the goal here is to face a situation that is difficult and intimidating. If she prepares with support, she will be proud of how she handles herself—no matter how the other girl acts. True self-esteem only comes from facing challenges that are unpleasant and sometimes intimidating. If we don’t build up our children to be able to face difficult social situations, they will not be able to handle them. It’s not easy and they need support every step of the way. But they have to face these kinds of problems. If they don’t, we are setting our kids up for social incompetence.

Another reader said “any discerning mom would know” if the girl had social skills problems that were causing the rejection. The implication being that because this mom hadn’t identified her daughter as having social skills deficits, her daughter didn’t have them. I strenuously disagree with this statement. Not only because I have seen so many well-meaning parents be blind to the social skills deficits of their children but also because we, as parents, aren’t around to see how our teen children act around their peers. We may think we know, based on how our children act around us. But that is making a huge assumption that I have found time and time again is wrong. Our children often act differently around their peers than they do around us. Another reader commented: “I used to remind my daughter that Girl World is not the Real World so that it doesn’t matter if she’s popular/accepted or not because she will never have to see any of these people again.” With all due respect, this is missing the point. Girl World—where conflicts are inevitable and some people abuse social power over others—is the Real World. Again, our children need to build social skills and you only build them by understanding and preparing for the inevitable—getting into a conflict with another person. No, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. Popularity isn’t the goal. The goal is maintaining a sense of self in the midst of a group.

Here’s a comment I really agreed with: “If she complained of feeling rejected, I would help her recall her social successes and what felt ‘right’ about them. I would encourage her to seek friendships that give her those feelings, and to provide the same in return to her friends. I might also remind her that she herself has rejected some people, by not inviting every child to her birthday parties, for example.” Here is a parent giving a daughter a concrete skill—checking in with herself about how she feels around her peers.

What’s most important to me is that as parents we really stop (me included) to hear each other and listen to our children when they are going through the inevitable but still really challenging and sometimes-painful conflicts they get into with their peers. I believe so strongly that our children are able to handle the messiness of these situations—including social rejection—if we support them behind the scenes.

What do you think about whether this daughter should confront a former friend? Post a comment and let me know.

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the best-selling Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to www.rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? E-mail askrosalind@familycircle.com.

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