What If You Can’t Say You Can’t Play?


Keep OutKeep Out

“You can’t play.”

“We already have enough people for this game.”

“You don’t have the same dolly as us, otherwise we’d let you play.”

“Maybe you can play next time.”

Some kids hear these type of words a lot, and some kids say them a lot. I know that my daughter’s school is plastered with posters about bullying and the school has some sort of No Bullying policy, but does it really work? I can think of a few high school kids right off the top of my head that are conspicuous outsiders. They’re the ones that don’t fit in, the ones that I’ll invite to game nights but then they stop showing up because even though I keep inviting them they don’t feel welcome around the other kids.

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life titled “The Cruelty of Children.” It’s an old show originally from 1996 (ancient, I know!), but the last segment really caught my attention. It was about Vivian Paley, a now-retired kindergarten teacher who had written a lot about kids and learning, and had even won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for her work.

Paley had written a short book entitled You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, in which she introduced a new rule to her kindergarten class. Basically, she was no longer allowing anyone to reject others from play, for any reason. Before instituting the rule, she spent a lot of time discussing it, both with her own class and with first- through fifth-graders at her school. What struck me was that most of the older kids felt it would have been a good rule when they were little, but they all felt (nostalgically) that it wouldn’t work for them—they were too old, too mean, too set in their ways already.

And Paley had her own doubts, too. On the one hand, it seemed like a reasonable thing to prohibit: there were rules about biting and hitting, for example, but nothing to prevent kids from establishing these power structures that would often continue into middle school and high school. Sure, everyone rejects someone at some point, and everyone gets rejected. But often it’s the same kids who get to be the “boss,” and the same kids who are rejected over and over. Paley wondered:

And yet, is there not a natural desire to include certain people and exclude others? Or is this desire in the same category as, say, biting? Some two-year-olds have a strong need to bite people; when they learn to curb the impulse they are much relieved. Perhaps being destructive is a burden. Yes, it must surely come as a relief when one’s good times are no longer predicated upon someone else’s bad times. That is, if the comparison to biting is correct.

The book is very brief, and doesn’t really say much about what happens after she establishes the rule, or (what I was particularly curious about) how the next class of kindergarteners respond, when they have never known school without that rule. The book is more qualitative science and not quantitative: it’s not a controlled experiment, but accounts of conversations with the kids. On the radio, Paley did mention that one little girl, Lisa, who often did most of the rejecting, would catch her in the halls in subsequent years: she would tell Paley that “it’s hard, but I’m still trying.”

The book got me wondering: is this sort of tolerance, this aspect of morality, something that can be taught? Legislated? It’s not saying that you have to be best friends with everyone in your class, but that you have to allow others to join you if they choose. I frequently hear my older daughter setting the rules about when her little sister can and can’t play with her, and I’m torn: do I force her to “play nice”? Do I simply teach the little sister that rejection is a fact of life?

What do you think? How do we raise kids who can make others feel welcome, but at the same time prepare them for rejection, which is all but inevitable in the real world?

Original “Keep Out” image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/alisdair/ / CC BY 2.0 modified by Jonathan Liu

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