Embracing Rejection

We want kids to all be friends. But life is more complex than that.

We want kids to all be friends. But life is more complex than that.

Allowing kids to reject each other can build inclusiveness. What?! No, this isn’t George Orwell’s 1984, where every truth is backwards. It’s simply another renegade rule that takes some getting used to.

When I explain why respectful rejection is good for kids, I often get strong adult reactions. We’re terrified. We don’t want kids to be mean and reject each other. We want to teach them kindness. Most of all, we want them all to be friends. Those are noble goals, but just like sharing, when we try to force friendship, things backfire. Real-life kindness and tolerance need a different set of social skills.

Respectful rejection actually helps kids gain the skills and confidence they need to bring more people in. It’s a tool for tolerance, not intolerance.

When children are allowed to choose their playmates and say no to others (see chapters like “You Can’t Play = A-OK” in my book It’s OK Not to Share), they develop the skills and experience to be welcoming friends. It doesn’t come all at once. Feeling comfortable with others and knowing how to set limits in social situations is all part of it. Forays into friendship can take courage.

Why Children Reject

Developmental  – For young children, it’s true three can be a crowd. Very young children are still emerging from parallel play. Maybe it’s true they can’t handle one more person in their game. It’s too overwhelming. This is a developmental reason.

Protecting a Friendship – This reason is often overlooked by well-meaning adults. Kids who say ‘no’ to another child may be trying to concentrate on a friendship. They’re fully involved with an existing friend in play. It’s rather like when you’re having coffee with a friend and your husband/ wife/ partner shows up. It’s not that you don’t like him, but it changes the dynamic. Hopefully we’re adult enough to handle this situation, and no one goes away with hard feelings. That should be our goal with the kids, too. “Looks like you’re busy playing with Ruby right now.” We can guide kids to be respectful when they reject and help all children develop resilience and coping skills. It’s not that kids don’t like the other person, it’s just that they want to be with another friend right now. No big deal. If we don’t make it a big deal, we can help kids cope with temporary disappointment.

Fear-based Rejection – This is a big one. Kids say ‘no’ if they’re worried about another child. Maybe she hits. Maybe he’s bossy. Maybe a week ago she scribbled on a favorite painting. There are all sorts of legitimate and fanciful fears that motivate kids to protect themselves and say ‘no.’ It’s safer. If we’re not focused on the adult-imposed doctrine of “we don’t say you can’t play,” then we can help guide kids to saying ‘yes’ more often. Ask simple questions or make statements. “What will happen if Olivia joins your game?” “I wonder what you’re worried about.” “What will Tayson do that you don’t like?” Being direct like this helps uncover the fears. Then it’s a simple matter of helping kids set limits to feel safe. “Olivia, Chris is worried that you’ll knock her tower down. Are you going to knock it down? Oh, Olivia says she won’t touch your tower. Can she play with you if she doesn’t hit your tower?” Find the fear. Set a limit. Watch a friendship grow.

Children who feel safe – to enjoy a special friendship on their own, or to set a limit on another child – are MORE likely to be welcoming and inclusive. That’s because their rights are respected. The right to pursue a friendship without interruption, the right to speak up, the right to express fear and set peer-to-peer boundaries.  It’s about feeling safe and gaining courage through experience.

When we feel safe and confident ourselves, we’re more likely to be welcoming to others.

If you try respectful rejection with kids – rather than forced friendships – you’ll see kids who:

  • Get on well with others
  • Know how to make friends
  • Know how to be a good friend
  • Are kind to people around them
  • Know how to set personal boundaries
  • Are willing to give other people a chance
  • Are open and welcoming to new types of people

The ultimate goal of respectful rejection is inclusiveness. Just as the ultimate goal of “it’s OK not to share” is generosity. We all need practice and understanding to get there.

It's OK small coverCurious to read more on the dicey subject of rejection? Get a copy of It’s OK Not to Share.

What’s your take on this misunderstood subject? Are you willing to try respectful rejection? Do you remember forced friendship situations from your own childhood?

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7 Responses to Embracing Rejection

  1. Jan Waters says:

    Heather, You’ve learned SYC philosophy well and it is all developmentally sound. I love the way you can explain things. Jan Waters

  2. Funny, even as an adult I’m sooo hesitant to set boundaries when I’m deep in conversation with someone and another friend comes along. Maybe we all need practice at this.

  3. Erika says:

    Great topic! I really appreciate the example of questions to ask our kids if they don’t want to play with someone. It’s about being curious, open to their answers, to honor their choices and guide them to make it in a kind way. I tell my girls, it’s ok if you want to play by yourself, just say it respectfully. THanks for this post!!

  4. Zanzanil says:

    I used to see my daughter behaving badly with one particular child. I sat her down and explained that it’s ok to dislike some one. But there always a better way to say no. And it did work big time between them and eventually they did get along just fine.

  5. MIhaela says:

    Hello! Great material! Thank you for the precious information.
    I would like to ask you how can we help the rejected one? The case is: a pre-teen girl (11 years old) with Spina Bifida – she has a light locomotion issue (she is walking a little bit strange and she wares a special brace at her down part of the leg – she cannot run very fast and avoids to get involved in games with a ball or where she risks to be pushed, because her medical condition), who is willing to play more “calm” games with her peers when outdoors and she very often gets rejected. Many times she gets the answer: “we can play later with you a game in which you can participate”, but they forget her afterwards. She also gets this tough “no”. She is a bold child, who communicates easily with both children and adults. Thank you!

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Occasional rejection is one thing, and chronic rejection is another. With kids who are frequently rejected it often helps to have adult help, even if it’s talking about it and learning a few phrases “OK, my turn” or “When’s later? When you get to 10 points?” Later is too vague and it can help to quantify it. There’s a chapter on chronic rejection is my book “It’s OK Not to Share.” If she’s bold and tough and can communicate easily she can figure out many of these things herself, but it can help to ease the way.