A mother recently asked me what I thought about her going in to her son’s fourth grade class in order to observe and perhaps intervene to stop another boy who was taunting, teasing and excluding her son.
Here’s my response:
- Mom coming to school to observe/intervene will lower her son’s status with his peers, and will elevate the status of those who may be mistreating him. Children in the forth grade are very aware of, and learning how to wield, social power. The presence of his mother will be seen as a sign of his weakness and lack of social power.
Children in the forth grade are concerned with social power, not right or wrong. Social power is unconcerned with whether an action is good or bad, moral or immoral, right or wrong. A hurtful/cruel action (mocking, shunning, physically intimidating, insulting) toward another can be just as effective at establishing social power as a helpful/kind action (encouraging, including, complimenting). Children who wield a lot of social power are admired and have status over their peers. (For more about this see the research in the new book Nurture Shock, chapters 4 and 9, by Bronson and Merryman).
If the other children believe that including her son in their play and social interactions is a responsibility or obligation they will have less natural desire/intrinsic motivation to do so. Therefore her son increases his social power at this stage when he actively seeks out other friends and makes a strong effort to participate in other activities and with alternate social groups during recess and free time. In the literature about motivation this is called the “Tom Sawyer Effect” (in reference to Tom’s ability to get others to paint a fence by making in appear an opportunity rather than an obligation – See the new bookDrive by Daniel Pink).
Additionally, she should coach her son to do his best not to hold any ill feelings or bitterness toward those who may have excluded him (at least not outwardly). He will be best served by being nice then moving away and finding other friends/activities.
When a parent sees their child suffering because of the cruelty of other children there is a very natural urge to rush in and make it stop. Unfortunately, by the time children reach grade school this approach can often backfire, causing children to loose important social power and denying them the opportunity to develop the skills and experience to negotiate these difficult social waters themselves. This passage below from my book Raising Lions addresses the mindset at the core of this switch from protector to coach.
“When guiding a child through a period of frustration or difficulty, there are moments when the child will not know what to do or how to solve their problem. This is a void, an empty space, that the adult must resist filling. These moments require waiting and faith. Waiting for the child to fill this void and faith that the child can and will survive this frustrating and confusing moment. To fill this void for the child, to solve the problem that the child might have solved given time and faith, is to rob them of the creative moment in which they fill this void themselves and discover their real power. Your faith and calm during these moments when your child is facing this void become the model for the calm your child will internalize when facing difficulties, frustrations and his own imperfection in the future.”