On Fickle Four-Year-Old Friendships: Surviving the Drama

Ah, the fickle friendships of childhood. Until recently, we never imagined that such dramas could begin as early as the preschool set.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

We signed Kimmie up for two weeks of camp this summer. The camp is run by her preschool, so she already knows many of the other campers, and the counselors are her classroom teachers from this past school year. Between this and the fact that she loved her week at camp last summer, we had every reason to think she’d love it again this year.

Except that she didn’t. Not at the end of the first week, anyway.

Or so it seemed. (It’s sometimes hard to tell.)

Last week, when my husband or I asked at the end of each day what Kimmie had done or learned at camp, we were left to conclude that our daughter had already perfected one of the hallmark survival skills of teens everywhere, a decade early: All she would say in response was “Nothing!” before quickly changing the subject.

But then last Thursday night, while Talking About Days with her, my husband began to hear a different story. Each night at bedtime, between story and prayers, we Talk About Days with the girls. My husband started doing this with Kimmie when she was a toddler, when it involved the grownup in charge of bedtime recounting the day’s events for her. Sometime after her second birthday, Kimmie took ownership of this retelling process, often recalling the events of her day in blow-by-blow detail, while at the same time insisting that the adult putting her to bed do the same.

We no longer hear about Kimmie’s every sneeze when we Talk About Days, but we do often hear about things during this sacred time that would otherwise go unsaid. Thus last Thursday, when my husband came downstairs after the bedtime routine, he mentioned that Kimmie had indicated the other kids were being “mean” to her at camp. Friday night, when it was my turn to do bedtime, I spent nearly an hour reviewing Kimmie’s day – and week – with her, trying (as is often the case with Kimmie’s stories) to sift fact from fiction.

Given Kimmie’s fertile imagination, this is frequently a challenging task. My first clue was in her choice of words to describe the week’s encounters with her fellow campers. Her language seemed unusually sophisticated and metaphorical for a four-year-old – “They just kept shutting me out, and I couldn’t open the door!” – until I remembered her current obsession with the Disney movie Frozen, and realized she was quoting song lyrics from the soundtrack.

Eventually I concluded that Kimmie had indeed felt cut off from the other kids at camp by week’s end, and that if she’d done something to trigger their collective act of being “mean” to her, she wasn’t about to ‘fess up to it.

It was all I could do not to go into full-blown Mama Bear protective mode. Her sense of isolation resonated with me more than I would have liked. Having been overweight and socially awkward for much of my childhood, I recognized all too well how she felt.

At the same time, I knew that my fighting this battle for her wouldn’t serve Kimmie well in the long run. And I also knew that my own mother’s advice to me when I was young – that I threaten to flatten the offenders by sitting on them – wouldn’t fly in this 21st-century context, even if Kimmie were chunky enough to make the threat carry weight.

So I resisted the urge to dash downstairs and shoot off a quick message to the teacher. Instead, I brainstormed strategies with Kimmie for responding to different versions of being “shut out”:
• With Angie, a girl to whom Kimmie was close by the end of their recent Goldfish year at preschool, I suggested trying a one-on-one chat, to see if Angie had a reason for being mad at Kimmie. (At the same time, I cautioned Kimmie that there might not be an explanation for Angie’s actions.)
• For Ali, her former best bud from the Goldfish class, the fact that he was now playing with a bunch of older boys was an indication that trying to talk to him one-on-one was a less promising strategy.
• If she found herself surrounded by a group of people picking on her, she could try walking away and playing somewhere else. If truly everyone were “being mean” to her all at once, she could go say hi to one of the adults.

We went over these strategies again on Sunday night at bedtime. After camp on Monday, I asked Kimmie if she’d been able to talk to Angie. “No, she’s not my friend anymore,” Kimmie retorted. Apparently Angie had announced this to Kimmie at the start of the day, before going off to spend the day with another girl.

I figured this was a good time to introduce Kimmie to a new vocabulary word, and explained to her what “fickle” means. Seems Kimmie hadn’t minded Angie’s actions, though, because Kimmie had been too busy hanging out with Star and Erin (two older girls from last year’s Bluefish class, whom Kimmie had met in an after-school reading program) and their former classmate Sienna, who had gone from total stranger to friend in Kimmie’s mind as the day unfolded.

And then, when I picked her up from camp on Tuesday, Kimmie solemnly reported that she is now Best Friends with both Ali (with whom she’s apparently reconciled) and Clio (who was in Kimmie’s Tadpole class during their first year of preschool, but was in a different room this past year). The details of how this came to pass with Ali aren’t clear; but as Kimmie recounted it, Clio walked up to her first thing on Tuesday and asked if they could be Best Friends, in a voice that carried all the gravity of a marriage proposal.

I just hope Clio doesn’t break Kimmie’s heart today at camp, lest we have to review what “fickle” means.

Maybe some of her more fickle friends will end up in the Catfish class next year.

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