A few reasons why children struggle with friendships

This is a new and improved version of a previous post. I’ve added something about playground knowledge of songs and games.

Reason #1: narrative of bullying vigilance causing a child to think of themselves as a victim as well as viewing friendship as being the responsibility of others

When a child starts school, it is an emotional time for all. Many primary educators would agree with me that often the parent will have more issues around letting go than the child in question and despite a lot of friendly advice from experienced early years professionals in the nursery years preceding school entry, parents will continue to project a lot of emotion onto their child. This is where diplomacy pays off as we gently remove the child from the emotional situation, quietly close the doors and then provide the child with something fun to think about, like phonics games. In addition to the pain of disruption to the caregiver’s need to be needed, there will also be major worries about whether the child will be happy. The anxious parent will say goodbye to their crying child and then spend the rest of the day imagining a worst case scenario which is that their child cries all day long, on his own in a corner of the room, while other children are cruel to him or her and the teacher does nothing about it.

Later that day, the worried parent will return to pick up their child, hoping to see joy in his face, but when they are greeted by a little person who immediately bursts into tears, the great investigation into What Has Happened begins. The parent is informed that when young children see a parent’s face again, they tend to remember the previous emotional goodbye and that is one reason they start crying. Of course, we are also reminded that it is normal for children to be very, very tired at the end of their first days at school and an immediate interrogation as to the day’s activities can be too much for the child, causing them to lose it. However, the interrogation proceeds and the child ends up being badgered into giving a reason for his tears through certain leading questions until the parent is satisfied with the cause of their child’s distress. Usually, that reason is something along the lines of ‘bullying’. Over the years, the child is effectively trained to look for evidence of bullying from others, but in their immature state will conflate ‘no I will not give you this ball because we’re busy with it right now’ with ‘he’s not being a good friend’. This is actually quite a miserable situation for the child.

Solution: all that is needed is awareness and trust!

Reason #2: desensitization to cruelty through too much unsupervised screen time

Many parents are completely unaware as to what their child is doing or looking at on the iPad or phone. Eventually, these children migrate from apps and games and then will be hooked on youtube, viewing content that insidiously desensitises them to all kinds of cruelty. While the school might be working hard in assemblies, circle times and PSHE lessons (as well as through rules and routines) to teach children to use ‘kind hands’ and ‘not make fun of people’, the internet is working hard to teach children to laugh at others’ misfortune, economic circumstance, race, sexuality, disability and religion. Children from all kinds of homes are being abandoned to the internet and I see addicts all around who display all the classic symptoms when confronted with their addiction: anger, denial, manipulation, self-pity. Further, the hallmark preference reversal means that these children will ignore their own hunger, tiredness or even the need to go to the toilet in pursuit of their fix and I have heard many times from both parents and children that their first port of call upon waking is not a cuddle with a parent, but picking up an iPad – am I the only one who thinks this situation looks too similar to that of an adult who lights a cigarette when they wake up? What happens during the day, when we’re supposed to be learning, is massively affected by this because these children are cranky as well as under the impression that casual cruelty is normal – this all gets transferred into the playground too.

Solution: take the tech away. Even better, don’t let them have it in the first place*.

Reason #3: rejection of human interaction, books and stories

Some parents are led to believe that their very young child’s ability to use the iPad since before they could walk is an indication of intelligence, so they encourage it. However, in addition to the problems of addiction outlined above, we also have the fact that screen time is much more exciting than everything else in the world for a child and this causes them to reject human interaction, books and storytimes, never acquiring the vital knowledge that fuels imagination and imaginative/social play. This social play is the first stepping stone to being part of society and the child who spends all his time on the iPad will not know how to join in with a group of children who are acting out a storyline which combines Little Red Riding hood, some random trolls under a bridge and that time when someone’s mummy asked daddy to hoover up a giant hairy spider the size of a dinner plate!

It doesn’t help that we seem to be telling parents that early language acquisition etc will develop naturally and without the need for any purposeful parenting. A young child has no hope of making friends if all he can do when he starts school is push and shove. As I have written before about reception year, certain habits born out of frustration quickly become embedded and I believe this is one of the reasons why we are experiencing growing issues with behaviour. When it comes to making friends and keeping them, re-enacting Fortnite just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Solution: put the human interaction (talking with children), books and storytimes back into children’s lives so that they have the conversational knowledge (words, phrases and social rules such as taking turns to listen) as well as fertile imaginations (through knowing stories) to take part in social play. Daily storytime really needs to be daily.

Reason #4: not understanding what ‘no’ means

This is a big one and it’s to do with boundaries. What happens is that many children are never educated out of tantrums and therefore learn that tantrums are the go-to option with pretty much everything in life. By the time they start school, they would’ve had about 3 years of empty threats and generally getting their own way. This also transfers into the playground where said children ask to join group of children who are playing together and are met with a resounding ‘no’ because of their reputation and they then simply recourse to flying off the handle. Once you reach a critical mass of children who have that habit, it’s pretty miserable for everyone involved.

Solution: empowering parents to set boundaries, say ‘no’ and mean it

Reason #5: traditional playground games and songs have disappeared


A couple of days ago, I happened upon a really interesting documentary which was made in 1959. I love peering at the past in this way, looking beyond material differences and instead at how people interacted and communicated with each other. The most striking feature for me was the children’s play times at school. Sure, the boys looked a bit rough, but you could see evidence of scripts handed down over the generations that ensured games were fair and rules were followed. The girls were all dancing to and singing songs that had been passed down the generations – the smiles on their faces and the size of the groups playing together. So inclusive! But where has it all gone? When was the last time you saw children singing Ring-a-ring-o-roses?

Solution: answers on a post card!

Who’s with me?

*I think my future uber-trad school might be a low-tech one!


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