Dear Barbara, my daughter is in the first grade and she seems to have an issue with friendships. She gravitates toward the one girl in the class (usually the "popular" one) and will be friends with her for a while until they decide they don't want to play with her anymore. This obviously is upsetting to her, and it's hard to tell the dynamics that play into this repeating pattern. In any event, I work on boosting her self confidence and have encouraged her to try to make friends with lots of kids (and boys) in her classroom but she seems to get hung up on being friends with the same person, which, I'm afraid just makes it worse. Any advice for my little cling-on?
It's not unusual for girls this age to be fickle in friendships. It's also not unusual for girls to be mean to each other even at this young age. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests meanness among young girls is on the rise.
Since young children are not always the best reporters, your first step is to talk to the teacher. What's her take on the social dynamics among the girls in the class? Girls can be secretive so exclusionary behaviors may not be making it to a teacher's radar. Plus, as you say, there are many possible dynamics here including that your daughter might want an exclusive relationship with the girl in question and refuses to play if it means "sharing" the playmate. That would make your daughter the one who is doing the rejecting, rather than being rejected. Anyway, alerting the teacher might get you more information and might also mean the teacher can promote pro-social behaviors. If your daughter is the one being rejected, can the teacher shed light on why it happens? Is there a pattern?
Make some playdates for your daughter, so that, one by one, she gets to know other children in the class, boys included. When my son was this age, he still enjoyed going to girls' homes for playdates because it usually meant arts & crafts projects. Since it's likely your daughter might reject a particular playdate, make the plan with the mom so that it's almost coincidental that the children are involved.
Initiate conversations about friendships with your daughter but be sure to make "I" statements about yourself -- "One of the reasons I love being friends with Carla is because we both have the same sense of humor; we're always telling jokes to each other and having a good laugh." -- rather than "you" statements: "Why don't you like to play with Sally?" "You" statements almost always make a child defensive; "I" statements are more likely to get them talking.
Be a good listener. When our kids tell us about social problems, we have a tendency to rush in with solutions: Why don't you do this? Why don't you say that? That only does that overwhelm them, but it doesn't empower them. Listen well and reflect back what she's telling you: "She said, 'I can't play with you. I'm going to play with Jane.' Then what?" Just the fact of re-telling the incident can make a child feel better; it can also enable her to come up with her own solution: "Next time I'm going to say, 'Can't the three of us play?'"
Recommend reading about friendships:
"Cliques," by Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese; "They don't like me," by Jane Katch; "You can't say you can't play," by Vivian Gussin Paley. (I know these last two are geared to preschoolers but the wisdom they provide isn't unique to young children. )