Playground Power Plays: Cliques and Stones Hurt

Written by Emily


Some things stay like stains on my memory. I’d like to forget them, wash them away, bleach them until they’re gone but they reappear again and again like ghosts.

I won’t forget the first time big kids refused to play with my boy at the playground. He walked up to them, wide-eyed and eager like he did everything then. They said, “No!” and took off, their laughter seemed to go on forever.

When he ran to me, I imagined popping heads off like dandelions while every bizzare insult my father ever uttered spewed out of me like a geyser: you don’t know your ass from your elbow, you have a face for slaps, you have the brains of a baked bean, you can’t shine sh…Well, you get it.

I didn’t say a word, but I scooped up my boy, still a toddler, and played with him with more enthusiasm than I’d ever played before, as if my life depended on it or at the very least my boy’s childhood.

It happened again. It’s the way it is on the playground sometimes.

So when I looked back at Chloe strapped into her carseat, her face wan and her lip quivering, I knew before I said, “Tell me about your day, babe.”

Tears rolled out of her eyes, the kind that can’t be tamed. She wasn’t in hysterics; she was hurt.

“I told them I was sorry. They told me to tell them I was sorry, so I did.”

“Sorry for what? What happened?”

“Nothing. I didn’t do anything. But they told me to say sorry if I wanted to play with them. And then they wouldn’t play with me anyway!”

Playgrounds from my childhood flashed like a dizzying strobe light in my mind: circles of  giggling girls, girls clustered together under the slide, gaggles of whispering girls. Cliques. They’re terrifying in their secret code; passwords change by the minute. In one day, out the next. It’s maddening being on the outside, and sometimes it’s just as maddening on the inside. Girls. Not all girls. Some girls. Kids. Not all kids. Some kids.

Some adults.

Sadly, I can’t control it. Despite my best efforts, I can’t even control the devastated little one whimpering in the backseat.

When we finally got home, I gathered her pieces and dried her eyes.

“Don’t say you’re sorry if you don’t mean it.” You’re nobody’s puppet, Chlo, not even mine.

“But they told me to!”

“If it’s true that you did nothing wrong, then you shouldn’t apologize.”

I thought about the lifetime of apologies she’ll give, ones she’ll mean, ones she’ll pray will hold her intentions, ones she’ll hope will matter.

“‘I’m sorry’ is for when you really mean it.”

“I just wanted to play.”

“I know.”

I hugged her again.

With her head resting on my shoulder, I wanted to ask her if she really wanted to play with those (insert unsavory title here). I wanted to tell her that real friends don’t behave like (insert unsavory title here). But she did want to play. They are her friends. They’re five. They practice power like they practice their letters. They see just what their words can do, how their movements can isolate and embrace. They’re getting a taste for who they want to be. They’ll choose personalities and spin and stretch and move like they’re in dress-up clothes until they feel just right.

So I told her that. In words that she might understand…someday.

While it’s tempting to throw down with anyone in my path when one of my kids is on the receiving end of catty recess games, I know they’ve been on both sides. I’ve seen this power play in my house. It’s there in whispers or in hiding places where I don’t always catch it in time.

Egos and feelings get bruised and battered.

Chloe was fine the next day. She was all smiles after school. She was “in”, or she made her own “in” somewhere. It probably helped that I taught her the Vulcan Death Grip. Nah. I didn’t.

For the next 20 years, I’ll be crossing my fingers that my children choose to invite others rather than reject them. I’ll be hoping they dig deep to uncover the kind of confidence that gives them strength in the face of meanness.

We’ll practice.

And I’ll swallow my urge to lift weights until my bulging biceps are a real threat.






17 comments for “Playground Power Plays: Cliques and Stones Hurt

  1. May 15, 2014 at 7:27 am

    It’s so hard to imagine that the little being you love so much may not be loved, or even liked, by others. And my husband and I often say that we’d rather have our kid be picked on than be the one doing the pickin’. This parenting ain’t for the faint of heart.

    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      May 15, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      You are so right, Erin! Parenting is not for the faint of heart! And I’m with you. I don’t ever want my kids to do the pickin’ either.

  2. Beth Griffiths
    May 15, 2014 at 8:27 am

    How touching. How true. Love it!

    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      May 15, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Beth! I truly appreciate it!

  3. Michelle
    May 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    This just happened to my 4 yr old on Tues. She said that “Jane” doesn’t like her and when pressed for details I have to admit, it sounds like she’s right on target for feeling that way. Girls can be so awful – it’s hard to teach them to be polite and sweet to all and then try and explain why everyone is not doing the same. And, might I point out, sometimes you can look at a mother and know exactly why her daughter is acting the way she is.

    Your article was spot on – true and heartbreaking not only for our kids, but us as moms.


    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      May 15, 2014 at 7:11 pm

      It’s such a killer when our kids are on the receiving end, right?! It breaks our hearts! I hear you for sure! Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment! I hope your little one has a reserve of confidence to handle these strange playground games.

    May 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    So touching and true!

  5. jme
    May 15, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    This made me teary…):
    Let me know if you decide to suit up and kick some butts, I may join you.
    Just kidding, just kidding!

    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      June 11, 2014 at 11:28 pm

      I will call you when I’m ready! 🙂

  6. May 17, 2014 at 12:01 am

    For what it’s worth, it even happens with boys. Boys in 4th grade!! My 10 year old son came home a few weeks back and told me he ate luch with a couple of boys from his flag football team. Keep in mind he’s gone to school with these same 27 kids since kindergarten. He said, “they finally let me eat with them.” Wait, what? What does that mean? “Well, they told me I’m kind of loud so I couldn’t eat with them. I told them to give me another chance, that I could be more quiet and they let me. Isn’t that cool?” COOL?!?! COOL!?!? No it’s not cool at all. Who are they to say you’re too loud? yes, my son has a big personality. (Trust me, I find his excitement ear-piercing at times.) Yes, other kids are entitled to like who they like. But come one, you’re eating outside at metal lunch tables. You’re not at a 5 star restaurant, requiring “inside voices.” But like you said, he just wanted to “play” Or in this case, sit with them. So I reminded him that he should of course know is audience and environment, but he should in no way change who he is just to sit at a lunch table.

    So, for what it’s worth… boy, girl, kindergarten, 4th grade… they can all be little a-holes;)

  7. May 17, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Don’t knock lifting weights until your bulging biceps are a real threat.

    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      June 11, 2014 at 11:27 pm

      I’m working on them 🙂

  8. May 19, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    I totally understand the urge to embrace ‘she-bear’; what I admire is your ability to use those moments to teach another way. I loved this insight:

    “While it’s tempting to throw down with anyone in my path when one of my kids is on the receiving end of catty recess games, I know they’ve been on both sides. I’ve seen this power play in my house. It’s there in whispers or in hiding places where I don’t always catch it in time.”

    The temptation to be a victim lives in every child (and some adults) I’ve seen. Attention at all costs is not something anyone should strive for.

    Love this post!
    God bless,

  9. LKD
    June 11, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    I was unable to read this post without crying. I was walking through the park with my toddler (who is not in school of any sort yet) and we stumbled on some kids in sixth grade playing soccer. I saw a “nerdy” looking kid playing by himself off to the side and he was inspecting something. I brought my daughter (two) over and asked if he had found something interesting. He said it was an insect, and warned me my little girl might be frightened by it. I was already in love with this kid. Then the soccer ball went flying in his direction and he kicked it back to the kids playing, without thinking. A “cool” kid came up to him and yelled “I TOLD YOU NOT TO GET ANYWHERE NEAR OUR GAME.” The insect kid turned away, saying nothing, absorbing so much pain. A white hot anger burned in me and I weighed my options. I decided I had none. I could do only one thing, ESPECIALLY as my daughter had witnessed this bullying. I went up to the kid (I am pretty small, he might have been taller and definitely heavier than I am) and said quietly, “Every time you hurt another person, every time you yell and scream like that, a shadow passes over you and you should be very afraid. Someone is always watching. I just saw it, didn’t I?” I stared him down with all the fearsome cool rage I could muster and then quietly walked on. I told the teacher “supervising” this recess in the park what I had said and to whom I had said it. He thanked me (thank goodness) and went over to the kids. The insect inspector smiled. I can’t say I felt any better. Had I just been a bully? Is it okay to let a bully know that his tactics are a danger to him, even if you are “lying?” I don’t know. And I can’t stop thinking about that kid. That insect kid. And my kid, who is so open and sweet and trusting and, you know, two years old. I’ve seen her want to play with kids who have no interest and it is rather like having your heart squeezed so tight you cannot breathe and you dare not cry for fear of your child sensing a problem. Empathy is rough, motherhood is even rougher, but I suspect the alternative is worse. Thank you for the camaraderie on a night I especially needed it. Now I am off to blow my nose!

    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      June 11, 2014 at 11:27 pm

      Thank you for this heartfelt, heart wrenching response. Now I’m crying. I truly hate seeing children sitting alone when their peers are playing, and it’s even worse when you witness them being ostracized. Horrible. I think you handled the situation beautifully. You weren’t a bully at all! You were an adult calling attention to an inappropriate behavior. The insect boy will be in my mind and on my heart–probably forever. Thank you for taking the time to share this with me. And you are so right about motherhood: motherhood is rough on the heart. Thank you.

  10. June 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

    This right here is my biggest fear about kindergarten.

    • girlalwaysinterrupted
      June 12, 2014 at 10:20 am

      It’s a tough world out there…for moms :/

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