Care and Feeding

My First-Grader Is Saying the Strangest Thing About His School Friends

I don’t think his claim matches the reality.

A first grader stands masked with his bookbag and folders.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pahis/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old son started in-person first grade last month, and it was his first time actually being at elementary school since he did all of his kindergarten year online. I was nervous about him struggling socially, as the only kids he saw during the pandemic were our neighbors’ kids, but for the first couple of weeks it seemed like he was doing great and had found a large group of friends. Lately, though, when I ask him about his day, after he tells me all the normal things (what he did in class, what games he played at recess), he then goes on to list all the ways kids were “mean” to him. I put mean in quotes because, well, they’re things like not getting to serve first in tetherball or Kaia taking the blue marker when she knows that he likes blue and she usually takes the purple marker.

Every day there’s a list of grievances of this kind. I’ve probed: I’ve asked him if there are kids who don’t let him play with them (he says no, he plays with all of his friends every day) or if anyone has teased or hurt him (also no—he says he loves his class!). When he forgot his lunchbox the other day, I dropped it off and saw for myself that he looked like he was having the time of his life. So I don’t understand why he insists on telling me all the tiny ways he feels he’s been treated unfairly. Is it a bid to get more of my attention? Is it a sign of something else? He’s always been a bit sensitive, but even when he was in Pre-K, things as small as someone taking “his” marker didn’t make him upset. Please help!

– Confused and Concerned in CA

Dear Confused,

You’re right to put mean in quotes, because he’s using “mean” as a substitute for something he doesn’t have a word (or rather, words) for—something along the lines of “yet another example of how life isn’t fair because it doesn’t always revolve around me and my needs.” I think he’s cataloging these examples and reporting them to you because he’s figuring something out about the world. He isn’t crying over them, is he? He reports that he has friends and loves his class. And you’ve seen for yourself that he’s happy, just as he also reports regularly, right along with his list of grievances.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the news that the world doesn’t revolve around him (that he can’t always serve first, etc.) is coming to him on a slight delay, thanks to pandemic strictures. I don’t think his talking about this to you is a bid for attention, and I don’t think he is being extra-sensitive, either. I think he needs you to help him make sense of what he is learning about how the world works, and even though he can’t articulate that (or what he means by “mean”), his instinct is to offer you this list. Why not respond to the grievances he airs by helping to normalize these experiences for him, helping him to understand that everyone wishes they could have what they want all the time, but that’s just not possible? (This would do the double-duty of helping him to learn empathy.) “It’s disappointing, isn’t it, not to always get to serve first in tetherball? Jack and Margie and Lola and all the other kids you were playing with must have been so disappointed yesterday when it was your turn to serve first!”

He’ll come through this to the other side, I feel certain. But instead of just waiting it out (and worrying!), you can help him through it. He’s making it plain, I think, that he wants you to.

– Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I’ve been best friends with “Claudia” for most of my life. Until recently, our 11-year-old daughters “Maggie” (mine) and “Laura” (hers) were inseparable. This spring, Maggie began hanging out with a more “popular” group of kids; some of her new friends pick on Laura. The girls’ friendship was rocky over the summer, and now that school has resumed, Maggie all but shuns Laura. I have tried but am failing to like Maggie’s new friends—since she’s started spending time with them, she’s been in trouble for talking back to teachers and for joining in their bullying. My relationship with Claudia has become tense, and I don’t blame her. It’d be very painful to watch Laura treat Maggie the way Maggie has treated Laura. I’m so frustrated by Maggie’s new attitude. I find myself resenting her for the wedge that has been driven between Claudia and me. I love my daughter, but I don’t like her right now, and I don’t know how to welcome her new friends into my home when I know they’re bullies. Do you have any advice?