How I taught my daughter about inclusion
My four-year-old daughter thinks everyone is her friend. Not just the older girls in the neighbourhood, whose heels she follows around endlessly like a little puppy — everyone. Her “swim buddies” at the pool, who she just met, the kids at the playground, even teenagers skateboarding at the nearby elementary school.
Layla’s whole purpose in life is to have as much fun as possible, with as many friends as possible. It’s what I love about her. What I admire.
This past summer she grew a little too, learning how to ride a bike like those older girls in the neighbourhood. Every morning, before we were even out of our pajamas, she would ask to go out and ride. She’d click on her helmet and pedal up and down the street, waiting for someone to play with. It was the summer of Layla. That is, until she received her first dose of rejection.
Layla was riding her bike near the other girls in the neighbourhood. Assuming she was invited to play, she followed them to the front steps of another girl’s house.
“Layla, you’re not allowed to play with us!” shouted the girl, before slamming the door in Layla’s face.
I watched as Layla backed her bike up and slowly rode to me with her head down. My heart broke, right there on the sidewalk.
She had tears streaming down her face and it was hard to hold back my own. My kids are the only two in our entire family, and I have only one or two friends with children. Friends are hard to come by for Layla, and she just wanted someone to play with.
So I did the only thing I could think of in that moment that I knew would lift her spirits. I took her to the candy store.
While she combed through the aisles with a smile across her wet, blotchy, cheeks, I started to plan the inevitable. How I would explain rejection and inclusion to my then three-year-old.
It’s not always easy telling a child that some people are mean for no reason, but I tried. I started by explaining that she did nothing wrong. That sometimes people just want to play by themselves, or just with others. That sometimes they just don’t express this in the right way. More importantly, I told her how proud I was of her for wanting to play with everyone.
Including those who exclude
We did meet up with that girl again, when her friends were nowhere in sight. She asked Layla if she could play with her. I seized the opportunity to point out to her how she rejected Layla so coldly. The girl denied it, shrugging her shoulders while donning a wicked grin. In that moment, I had to remember that I was a parent and not a prosecutor. So I invited the girl to play and opened our gate. “Everyone is welcome to play with us,” I said.
I believe in leading by example, especially when the opportunity is right there, ready to be seized. Rather than lecturing Layla about how she should act, I want her to see it. I want her to see the response she’ll get from her actions. At home, I encourage her brother to come and play with us, and she sees how happy it makes him feel. I interact with her friends at preschool and at the playground, so she can see the impact of including others.
And if she doesn’t want to play with them, that’s okay too. We just express it in a kind way.
I know that Layla’s Mean Girl experience is only the beginning as she approaches school. Hopefully by teaching her about inclusion, I can put her on the right side of that slammed door. Hopefully one day she’ll be there for someone who needs a trip to the candy store.