Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Social Life Really Kind of Stinks

A 12-year-old girl looking sad at recess.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and  Muanpare wanpen/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My daughter is in fifth grade, and it’s becoming clear that her social life really kind of stinks. She has always been a bit reserved, and COVID has made this even worse. She is quiet and shy at school to the point where I think it is affecting her academic performance. I feel like she’s the kind of kid who needs to feel a personal connection with her teacher to do well, and that is lacking.

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She really only has one school buddy, and she’s in fourth grade, so won’t be in the middle school program with her next year. It has been years since she was invited to a playdate or a birthday party. It makes me sad because she is a good-hearted and sweet kid…she’s just kind of shy and anxious, and I think her schoolmates and teacher just see her as these two big eyes and crazy frizzy hair sticking out above a giant mask.

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She gets upset when I sign her up for activities; she would prefer to read, write stories, draw, and play video games at home. But I notice that when she spends too much time in these pursuits, she gets grouchy/sad. I just wish that we could find something that she is truly passionate about (beyond her Nintendo Switch).

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We have loved her K-8 school for her older sister, who is much more of an extrovert. The two girls are so different, but it’s hard not to compare. Her sister has always had a solid friend group and is very willing to put herself out there in a variety of activities. She thrived in middle school. Knowing the teachers and the kids my younger daughter will be with, I just don’t see the same scenario for her.

I’m looking for ideas about how to draw her out of her shell and encourage her to make friends. I’m considering a smaller private school; I think the personal attention and smaller class would be great for her, but my husband is hesitant because of the cost, and she insists she doesn’t want to go to a different school. I welcome any advice you have.

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—Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I think it might be time to get your daughter some support. She might need some help in initiating and navigating social situations better. This can be done in school with the help of a school psychologist or social worker, or it could be managed with the help of an outside therapist. Sometimes it’s as simple as kids participating in a lunch group once or twice per week, where kids can work on conversational and listening skills with the guiding hand of a teacher. Initiating conversation, joining games, and feeling confident with peer interactions come easy for many kids, but some need instruction and practice in order to feel and be successful.

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You might also look into getting your daughter a mentor—an older student who can serve as a role model and offer advice on social situations that we probably don’t understand well enough as adults. You may find that your daughter is more willing to listen to the advice of a kid a few years older than her than you, which is annoying but often true.

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You might try to find activities that align specifically with her interests. Libraries often host book clubs and student writing groups, or perhaps you could facilitate one yourself. You might find a drawing class at a local art school or museum. There are even video game clubs that might interest your daughter, and these activities might bring her contact with more like-minded kids who she might have better reason to interact with and perhaps befriend.

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The shift to middle school might also be very helpful. Presumably the middle school has a larger number of students than her elementary school. If this is the case, your daughter’s introduction to a greater number of kids might help her find her people. It’s often in middle and high school, when the number of possible friends increase, that kids like your daughter find the people with whom they match best.

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I know it’s hard to see your child struggle socially. Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My husband and I are both night owls and always have been, and we now have two night owl kids—our oldest is almost 5. Bedtime is always a battle and despite a set routine and saying goodnight at 8:30 p.m., our oldest is usually awake until 10 or even 11 p.m., playing quietly in her room. We know from our own childhoods that we can’t force her to fall asleep, and we’re not interested in dying on that particular hill.

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Because of COVID, our daycare has a strict drop-off window and we are constantly late because we are spending so much time trying to wake her up and get her moving through the morning routine. I’m already anxious about the kindergarten schedule, which has a starting time that is currently when we’re dragging her out of bed while she sleeps through a blaring alarm.

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We really feel for our kid and understand she’s just wired this way and not being obstinate about sleep on purpose. We want to find some path to successful (or maybe just less painful) mornings when she starts school in the fall. What can we do now that might help? Any thoughts on how to get night owl kids to transition to schools with earlier start times? Thanks!

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—Night Owls

Dear Night Owls,

I don’t blame you for not wanting to fight what you think is natural to your family. Besides thinking about what worked for you and your husband (surely at some point you had to coexist with us day-people!) consider getting your daughter excited about the prospect of leaving the nest. My youngest is a kindergartener and all last year she was aflight with excitement for the coming year. Use that energy to motivate your daughter: “you’ll have to get up early for kindergarten. What can we do to get ready? Do you think you can go to bed early like a big girl?” By working with her to hatch a plan, it’s more likely that she’ll work to make it succeed, instead of chaffing against a structure that you impose. With a five-year-old you’ll probably have to do some leading and coaching, she isn’t likely to come up with “I should avoid screens after eight” on her own.

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A few things to remember: Once school starts and she gets in a new routine, she may well be too tired to stay up late and this problem may solve itself. I know all kids are different, but my kindergartener routinely falls asleep on her own before nine without anyone telling her to go to bed. At that age, kids need a lot of sleep, which is why your question is so important. Second, when she comes home from school, don’t let her take a nap. I can’t speak from experience on this, but I do have some night-owl teacher-friends, and they told me that they have to avoid napping at all cost once the summer is over to get back into a school routine. Last, consider what you can do to make your morning run smoothly. It’s so important for academic success that school be a joyful experience for as long as possible. At some point, she’ll be sixteen and the battle will be long lost, but for now, school needs to be fun. If every morning is a battle to wake up and a screaming match to get out the door, it doesn’t set the right tone for learning. Consider doing things like packing lunches or picking out outfits the night before. I mention those specifically because they are things that she can help with and very soon do on her own. One of my 9-year-old twins still ritually picks her outfit every night because of this strategy we employed when she was younger. While the other kids have dropped it, she found that to be both fun and crucial to her success, so it stuck. Hopefully this will be your daughter’s first opportunity to have some control over her life and see how problem-solving can be joyful and help her learn about herself.

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—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

I have two children who are five and eight (currently in preschool and third grade). We live in the Minneapolis suburbs and are planning a move to San Diego. My partner works from home, so we could leave at any time from that perspective.

Do you think it would be better to make a move while they’re still in elementary school, or wait until the natural transition to middle school? My younger child is into the idea and will transition fine. My older child is more skeptical and hesitant, but he is willing. He would like to wait and finish elementary at his current school and leave in the summer between fifth and sixth grade. I think it would be more beneficial to move earlier so he could hopefully make some friends that would transition to middle school with him. But I could be totally wrong. What are your thoughts?

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—Make a Move?

Dear Make a Move,

You have your answer. You said your 5-year-old is amenable, but your 8-year-old is hesitant. If each were three years older, the younger one would be hesitant and the older would be pitching a fit. The longer you wait, that more attached they’ll get to their friends, their school, their routines…

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Moreover, elementary to middle school is a hard enough transition as it is. Often sixth grade is the first time kids change classes, have lockers, etc.—not to mention the fact that these kids are contending with major hormonal shifts. I wouldn’t add a move to the other side of the country then too. Get them settled in on the west coast. Let them make friends. Your 5-year-old may not even remember the move; for the older one, it’ll be a dull ache, rather than an acute pain.

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—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

My son is in first grade. He’s an advanced reader and in a small reading group. His group just finished reading a book for their “book club.” My son read Because of Winn-Dixie but his best friend read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Well, his mom is extremely heated up about the choice of book, and while I am extremely anti-censorship and fully believe kids should be allowed to read what they want, From the Mixed Up Files seems like an odd choice to be on a first grade reading list no matter how advanced the kiddo is. As she and I think about this, I’m wondering: Should parents be expected to see a list of proposed class reading books prior to kids choosing what book to read?

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—Book Smarts

Dear Book Smarts,

I have a daughter in first grade, and I have no idea what books she’s reading at school. While I think it is nice to share a list of book choices with parents, whether or not that’s expected is going to depend on the community. In some schools, teachers communicate with parents quite frequently, while teachers in other schools only communicate when required. This year, my communication with families has suffered because both the school district and state have overloaded me with so many additional responsibilities that eat up my time.

From your letter, my impression is that you consider this book to be too advanced for first grade. I’m going to confess that I have not read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, so I personally cannot speak to whether the book is appropriate for first graders. I notice that Common Sense Media recommends it for ages nine and up and Scholastic recommends it for grades four and five, so it does seem to be aimed at older readers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a parent sharing concerns about a text with a teacher. I’m confident the teacher will articulate why they felt this was a good book club choice, but they may also benefit from hearing your friend’s point of view.

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Once, several years ago, I was teaching A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah to my high school students. One of my student’s parents emailed to tell me that her son was struggling with the book: he found the violence deeply disturbing, particularly the ways in which adults manipulated boys into killing. My student and I worked out a plan that met his needs so he could be successful in class but avoid sections of the book that were distressing.

I would say that this was not censorship: the student’s mother didn’t ask me to stop teaching the book, remove the book from the curriculum, or pull it from the shelves. If From the Mixed Up Files has had a negative impact on your son’s best friend, surely his teacher will want to know that for future reference.

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I do believe that choosing a book to read is an empowering act for readers of all ages. I think it’s wonderful for parents to talk with their children about books. And while parents will surely want to influence the books their kids read (which may be appropriate or even necessary at times), I encourage parents to give their kids free rein as much as possible.

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—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

More Advice From Slate

My daughter’s sixth-grade elective teacher recently called me to tell me that my daughter is a great student, eager to learn, and very fun to have in class. Sounds great, right? But he also mentioned that he often asks her to partner with difficult students in class. When I asked my daughter about this, she said that these difficult students are often boys that don’t pay attention and don’t really want to be in the class. I feel like he is putting an unfair burden on her. Is it worth going back to the teacher to have a discussion with him about this?

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