Friday, September 29, 2023

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play! Does setting this limit then make us the bully?

March 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Parenting From Balance©

palos verdes preschool

As parents and adults, we typically struggle a little with how to provide children the space to have their power, (and thus exclude) and also provide an opportunity for them to develop common ground.

I think it is so important, of primary importance, to allow children to have as much power over themselves as possible. Especially power over their own bodies. I think somehow that through providing children with the opportunity to have power over themselves and their environments, that they can develop empathy naturally.

And so I have, for the past few years, gone along with the thought that children should be allowed to exclude. As it was explained to me, it is a necessary factor in developing personal power.

BUT I Recently realized that THIS IS WRONG INFORMATION!!!!  EXCLUSION IS NOT a developmental stage that children grow out of when they have enough of it.

In group play, we want to help the powerless. And the question is whether we make children include others, or allow them to exclude.

It is a delicate situation. There is a fine line between using our implicit power (by being adults, by having larger bodies) to “encourage” the excluders to include, and thereby becoming the bullies in the process.

And although I have been fairly comfortable in helping children see ways they can include each other, but I was not comfortable to making them, however gently, include another child in play if they do not want to. I felt that I was somehow circumventing a developmental stage they needed to travel through, unfettered by my persuasions or values.

And I have been rethinking the old approach I was taught since I starting to read “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” and it is helping change my mind and find a new solution.

That way with excluded/excluder never resonated fully with me, and therefore I could never really explain the reasoning fully to anyone. That was my inkling to myself that I needed a new approach.

The approach I learned to take seems to imply that exclusion is a developmental need that children must engage in and experience fully before they can move on to inclusion. Kinda like the way sharing works, where we allow a child to have have an object until they feel secure and then they will spontaneously share. While it is true in the case of possessions, it does not work for exclusion.

It goes back, like everything, to what the unmet need is. There were 2 different needs in the dynamic at my house yesterday. Not sure I got the needs right, but there was my son, wanting to be a cool friend (be accepted) by his new friend Gerry, and Gerry, wanting to feel important? Wanting to feel powerful?

In examining the needs, I see that there are more valid ways to meet these needs. The behavior of exclusion as a tactic to meet these needs is not something I want my son to carry on with into his teen years. That would be bullying. So when will it end, if I let it go, unchecked?

I thought about how I had handled name calling in the last 2 years — same thing. I originally thought I should let it go, and not give it energy, and it would resolve itself. It is only words, after all. But name calling can be just another way of excluding. And what happened instead was that a gang mentality appeared. It was like Lord of The Flies.

Yes, children are pure. And their intentions are never evil: and yet, when their behavior is allowed to go on, unexamined, it can feed off itself. We have an important function in the lives of our children: not as authoritarians, but as authoritative coaches.

We have to think again of that mountain of egocentricity, and society/community below. Our collective goal is to help them acquire the skills to interact productively and happily with society. To become a member.

Just yesterday my son had a playdate with 2 friends. One of them (a 6 yr old who also happens to be the newest addition to the group) has been trying the exclude the 3rd friend (a 4 year old and my son’s best friend) for the last 2 playdates. This time I realized before hand what might be in store for Ari. My son had created 3 “kits” – one form each friend. He showed me them, proudly, and explained that the dumbest kit was for Ari.

I discussed in brief. First I said: I noticed last time you three played together, Gerry tried to exclude Ari and call him names. If that is your plan again this time, then it is better if we call him right now and ask him not to come.

“No! I want Ari to come.”

“OK. Then I am also wondering about this kit. How would you feel if you went over to your friend’s house, and he gave you the “dumbest” kit.?”

“OK Linda. I’ll put together the kit and you can decide whether it’s dumb.” He put together the mini figure and held it up for me to see. “What do you think? Is it dumb?”

“I don’t think it’s dumb. I think it’s kind of cool.” I stated plainly, shrugging my shoulders. “I think it’s great that you thought of making kits for each of your friends.”

“Yes, and don’t forget they are supposed to fill them up with their own figures from my box once they get here.”

“Ok. I just want you to think about how you will play with both friends today. And if that is too hard, then don’t invite one of them over. Sometimes people think they can’t play with more than one friend at a time. And that’s OK, too.”

“Why is that, Linda?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it just takes practice. But it’s worth it. It can be more fun to have more friends together.” As I talked with him, I remembered having a similar conversation with my own mother when I was 6, and I had been excluded. Only that time, my mother told me that 3 people cannot be friends together. She had laid it down as a law. How dismal is that?

I saw my son listening intently to me, and I saw the wheels turning in his head. I have a rule with conversations: 25 words or less. Otherwise the children turn off their ears, and float on down the road. After 25 words, my voice becomes the teacher’s horn voice in Charlie Brown. “Bwaap bwap bwap bwap bwaap.”
The boys arrived, and though of course I had to intervene a couple of times to help Gerry understand about name calling and using threats, Kian happily included Ari in the play.

At one point when Gerry said to Kian “Ari can’t have cereal, right?!” Kian seemed to have not heard the remark at all, and he said to Ari “Would you like some, Ari?”
The three boys simply needs to know what the rules of engagement were. They just needed to know what the limits were. And this is not knowledge they are born with.

This is why we are in their lives. And it is our job to be sure that when we are setting down those limits, we are not doing so out of fear, or control issues. We have to be coming from as much clarity as possible.

Some might say I usurped my son’s power by not allowing him to exert his power to exclude. I disagree. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. I look at my son, and see that he is grounded, strong, confident, joyful, spontaneous, imaginative, fulfilled, and opinionated. My son is an awesome person, who is thoughtful and considerate, and has many friends. He speaks his truth clearly to anyone, adults and children alike. I am loving the person he is, and my guidance for him is helping him become a success in the world.

If he actually chose me as a spirit, then he chose me at least in part for my experience on earth, and the answers I have. If I fail to share with him my wisdom, then I am neglectful in allowing him to flounder and fail. It could be so much easier for him than it was for me — because he has me and my husband as parents.

I know that there are also different kinds of exclusion. There are different reasons for it.

The kind of exclusion I am discussing above seems to fulfill some kind of self esteem issue. A need for power, a need to push someone else down to fill big enough in our own skin.

Today we had an impromptu staff meeting before school started about exclusion. We all discussed the approach I wrote about. Then the teachers put it into action. Ari, Gerry, and Kian were all at playschool today, and so of course the situation was recast!

And this time, the 3 boys were at the top of the structure, and Kian told a 4th boy: you can’t come up here!

The teacher asked: how does that feel? I know when I have been excluded, I felt bad inside. Kian agreed, and he said “But Heather, there isn’t enough room up here for more people. When more people come up, it’s crowded!”

(Teacher) Heather said “Oh! Well, that makes total sense. Maybe you could say that, then, to Jerry. I know that if you told me that, then I wouldn’t feel bad, I would understand!”

Kian: “Jerry, you can’t come up here right now because it will be too crowded, but you can be on the bottom!”

So although I know that it is different in classrooms than at home, it is still our job as teacher to mentor good citizenship. To be the best we can be, to offer guidance for their journey.

That’s why we shouldn’t judge them — they are just struggling to figure it out.

And if we take the time, they really reflect on what we have to offer them.

Like Bev said once, with a child who is really having a hard time, if we can get down on their level and be there with them — and let them know we are in it with them: “We’ll get through this together” goes a long way. Kids just want to be successful.


One point I want to make clear: when I compare exclusion to sharing, I did not mean to say they are related.

What I meant by the comparison is simply that many people seem to think that exclusion is a developmental stage that children must travel through and work out on their own. Just as sharing is.

And my current professor at UCLA, Karen Fite, helped me see that the precise difference between the sharing thing and the exclusion thing is that though both are fear-based, with sharing, they will grow into the behavior of sharing once they have filled up. With exclusion, the act is often driven by “exclude them before they exclude us” or “unite before we become the outsider” which is part of our general society, and leads to competitiveness, and also lack of a community mentality, and instead a gang mentality…

So if they are indeed excluding (gang mentality) then you can talk to them about it.
However, I think you are including “not wanting to share” behavior in this — and that is not what I was talking about. The “not wanting to share behavior” (“go away” as protection of a plan or property) can look like exclusion, but is not exclusion. It is simply not sharing. Exclusion has to do with power, and self-esteem. Sharing has to do with lack. We already know that sharing is something the child can work through more or less on their own. With one caveat — I suggest to them less harsh language to use when expressing those needs that look like exclusion but are not what I am talking about here:

“I need some space”

“I want to play by myself with this plan (and then you can have a turn)”

I see the fine line here, but you might notice that at 4 years old some kids may start to band together against another kid. That is the exclusion I am talking about.

And then they need to be given better tools to use to overcome their fears, and successfully connect with other children. This is what many non traditional educational approaches, like waldorf, montessori, reggio emilia, and constructivist schools are trying to accomplish, just as we are.

Lots of Love,



2 Responses to “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play! Does setting this limit then make us the bully?”
  1. Linda says:

    Wow. This was quite a rambling post and I think Linda should revise and edit with a machete!!


  2. Sarah says:

    Thank you for your post, I have to agree with your piont of view any pointers on how to deal with parents who dont ‘parent’ my son of four has a life time friend of five who has a new best friend and they exclude him unfortunatly the mums dont think its a problem just part of growing up, I however disagree I try to gently persuade them to let my son participate. I feel like I’m failing to give my son the right tools as I dont know what to do! I dont want to stop socialising with them as the mums are my best friends!! any ideas gratefully recieved

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