Social death by triangulation: Playground problems of the exclusionary kind

How weird is it that in order for kids to figure out how not to be jerks, they have to try being jerks for awhile?

I’ve never had to be a girl in school. I had a very stereotypical experience crafting childhood friendships as a cis male. I played with my (mostly) male friends. We ran around, hit each other with sticks, pretended to be ninjas, and called each other horribly offensive slurs that we didn’t even remotely understand. We’d hurt each other’s feelings, but also hurt each other’s faces with punches.

As a father of daughters, I recognize that my daughters will likely craft different types of relationships than I did. Both because they are individual humans that are not me, but also because the expectations of how little girls interact with each other are different than how little boys interact with each other, and I’ve never been a little girl.

At kindergarten orientation this past August, my five-year-old’s soon-to-be kindergarten teacher took us through the common emotional milestones of a kindergartener’s journey. She will likely need a snack for the ride home. She will come home exhausted. At some point in October, she will realize that school is forever and refuse to go back. She’ll get over it. And sometime in the spring, the children, more commonly the girls, will start to triangulate.

…triangulation is when kids start practicing how to be awful to each other…

Unfamiliar with the term, the teacher explained that triangulation is when kids start practicing how to be awful to each other (my words, not hers). Two kids will declare themselves best friends and then vocally exclude the third: “You can’t play with us!” A child will be ostracized one day and do the ostracizing on the next. The clearest manifestation of triangulation is loud declarations of who will and will not be invited to a birthday party.

This is, apparently, a normal thing that kids do. They’re trying on social interactions to see how they fit. Part of learning how not to be mean is experiencing both someone being mean to you and what it feels like to be mean to another person. The adults in their lives can’t stop it, nor should they, but they can monitor it to make sure that it doesn’t become unbalanced or extreme and to help scaffold the interactions where appropriate so the kids can teach themselves how to treat others more respectfully.

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to step back and let the kids try and work it out themselves. I’m all full of baggage that I want to project onto my daughters. In elementary school I missed the cue that social castes had formed and embarrassed myself by saying hi to the wrong person. In middle school, I turned my defensive sarcasm shield on full, and probably hurt a lot of people’s feelings. In high school, I was enthusiastic about marching band to the point of annoying people, and NO ONE bothered to tell me so!

What cues will my daughters miss? What defense mechanisms will they put up? What will they be oblivious to? The answer is all sorts of things, things completely different from me because they aren’t me. The worst thing I can do is project my worries on to them, because then they’ll have double the worries, the ones they’d have anyway plus mine.

But, I’ve also seen Mean Girls and read the nonfiction work on which it was based, Queen Bees and Wannabes. I know that children have the capability to be the worst human beings to each other. Like most things, you have to have balance. Balance the desire to protect your kids and the desire to have them explore on their own. Balance the need to give them space with the need to observe them to watch out for extremes.

So, instead of worrying “will my daughters be hurt,” my job is to assume that they will and focus on picking up the signs of hurt so I can help soothe them. Instead of worrying that my daughters will be either the victims or perpetrators of awfulness to their peers, I have to accept that they’ll do both, and help guide them as they do. I needed to experience things for myself growing up, my daughters will likely need the same. No amount of anecdotes or lessons learned from my childhood will stop that.

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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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