A good friend of mine pulled me aside the other day. She had just dropped off her 4-year-old daughter, whom I’ll call Emma, for an afternoon playdate with my 5-year-old daughter, June.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” my friend said. “But Emma told me she doesn’t really want to play with June anymore because June is always telling her what to do, then making Emma feel bad when she doesn’t comply.”
I asked her what she meant.
“Well, she said that if she tells June she doesn’t want to play a particular game, June gets really upset and threatens to end the play date. So Emma keeps playing to keep June happy.”
Ouch. Do the mind games begin this early?
I like that my daughter is comfortable expressing what I’ll call “strong leadership qualities,” which in a pre-Lean In era, would have been called “bossy.”
Embracing “bossy” is quite fashionable. To be sure, there is nothing negative about encouraging girls to assert themselves and take the lead, to focus less on pleasing and more on courageousness, regardless of the endeavor. But there is a flip side. Being around someone who feels compelled to dictate the goings-on of everyone around them can be oppressive and annoying, whether exhibited by women or men, girls or boys. No one likes to be told what to do or what color barrette they’re allowed to wear during mermaid play. Add to that a dash of emotional manipulation — “play pirate fairies with me AGAIN or I WILL cry and you WILL feel bad!” — and it’s no wonder Emma is ready to shelve the friendship.
Neither my friend nor I were quite sure what to do. We love that our daughters are buddies because it makes life easy for both of us and most of the time the girls play well together. Emma is no pushover. She is a stubborn little girl in her own right, but she is not inured to kindergarten peer pressure. We weren’t sure we even wanted to get involved. After all, our own moms would have rolled their eyes, told us to figure it out ourselves, and cracked open another can of Tab.
But we decided the situation presented an opportunity to talk to our girls. My friend said that on the way over, she talked to Emma about the importance of saying “no.” There’s nothing bad or wrong about not wanting to play family with June for the ten thousandth time. In fact, saying no was an opportunity for both of them to play something else, something new together. She tried to spin it toward a positive opportunity.
As for me, I didn’t want to tell June to curb her authority, which would only reinforce those old gender stereotypes. Rather, I used it as an opportunity to talk about friendship: what it means to be a great friend and how to cultivate friendships that endure. Part of that, I said, is letting others take the lead once in a while simply because it makes friends feel good. Equally important is not making friends feel bad if they don’t want to do something you would like to do. It lets people know their decisions and opinions are valued and important.
She seemed to get it. They ended up playing really well together for about five hours. Afterward, I asked my friend if Emma said anything about the playdate, and apparently, she told her mommy she had a fine time.
It’s a tricky situation and this is sure to be an on-going conversation with my daughter. Because while I absolutely want June to express her natural leadership qualities, I don’t want those same qualities to push Emma (or anyone for that matter) away.