Dear Polly,

Despite my constant intervention and discipline strategies, 4-year-old Mary continues to tell one or the other of her two favorite classmates, “You’re not my friend!” almost every day. She uses this accusation to pit one child against the other. She also says it to many of the other children. This is very hurtful to the children she targets. What can I do to stop this unpleasant behavior?

Our first response to a situation like this is to “discipline,” which isn’t always the best way to curb an “unpleasant” behavior—and I agree that this is an unpleasant behavior. The best first response is to consider why a child is doing something, and then to help her find a better way to get what she’s after.

Throughout history, women and men have known that playing “hard to get” enhances their appeal—it makes their company more sought-after. Striving to get something desirable that’s just beyond reach is a challenge we feel compelled to meet. I think that when a child says, “You’re not my friend” or “I won’t invite you to my birthday party,” the same psychology is at work. In addition, a threesome usually requires more finesse than a twosome. Don’t you find that some activities simply are more satisfying when done in a partnership rather than a group? Here are some things to tell young children to help them juggle difficult group dynamics:

  • “Mary, it hurts people’s feelings when you tell them they’re not your friend. If you just want to play with Julia, tell your other friend, ‘Julia and I are playing now, but you and I can play later, OK?’”

  • “Constanza, Mary’s busy with Julia. They don’t need another person to play with them right now. Come on, let’s find a different friend to play with you. You can play with Mary later.”

  • “Mary, do you like your mom? Your dad? Your sister? Sure you do. It’s easy to like many people at the same time. You can like your friends Julia, Constanza, and Violet all at the same time, too! Play with the friend you want to play with now, and tell the others that you like them even if you are not playing with them at this moment.”

  • “Violet, will you play with Julia when you and Mary are finished jumping on those rocks? Will you tell her, so she can look forward to it?”

  • “Julia, Violet wants to play with you in a little while. What will you and Violet play? What would you like to do now? Maybe a puzzle with me?”

Young children are as inexperienced in dealing with the nuances of social relationships as they are with the mysteries of reading. It’s as important to educate them about these life skills as it is to gently guide them along in all other dimensions. ECT