Invitations: helping children avoid social scorekeeping

By , special to The Christian Science Monitor

Somewhere, chiseled in stone, there must be the Reciprocal Rules of Social Conduct. These rules have been passed on for generations, often to the detriment of those who learn them. Where is it written that inviting must be done in sequence?

"Jason," I heard a mother say last week, "you can'tm have Kevin over after kindergarten. It's his turn to have you."

Familiar words? It's a common philosophy, one on which many of us were raised, one planted in little minds very early. And one which cheats children -- and adults --of much pleasure in the course of a lifetime.

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Jason's mother is a social scorekeeper: jason 1, Kevin 0.

Jason may grow up convinced tht he really can'tm invite someone if it's not his turn. He may miss many friendships and perhaps become less spontaneous.

Kevin is an especially nice little boy. But he can'tm invite children after school. His m other works, and his sitter wants no extras. So Jason and Kevin miss a happy afternoon of play.

Worse, Jason is learning, at five, a see-saw social philosophy: you invite me , then I invite you, then you invite me, then. . . .

I remember Rebecca, who in fourth grade explained to me wistfully one day, "Me and Jenny was best friends. I had her at our house in first grade. It was the funnest day I ever had in my whole life. It's her turn to invite me and I been waitin' now for three whole years."

There are often reasons, usually unknown to us, why someone doesn't return an invitation. it usually doesn't mean they don't like us or don't want to be friends. Some of my most rewarding friendships are with people who come to my house more than i go to theirs. Some of the least rewarding are with people who are quick to return an invitation. Some people don't entertain because they lack confidence or space or money or time.

That shouldn't be a reason for a child to miss out on a friendship. Is the point to compete in an invitation derby?

In social scorekeeping we are, perhaps unwittingly, teaching our children that the only people wordh socializing with are those who invite us a lot.

These are the years when children should be learning to choose friends for their personal qualities, not for the frequency of their invitations.

We must not make youngsters feel that an unreturned invitation is a slight or a rejection. It usually is not a sign that the other child doesn't want to be friends.

Some children can'tm have friends over because both parents work or because of family problems -- or, yes, because some parents don't want to be bothered.

And some children preferm being in other homes to being in their own. We should perhaps be flattered that they likem to come to ours.

each of my boys has a friend whose mother works. Jonathan goes to a day-care center and can't have children over to play.

Mark has a sitter who takes the job quite literally --she sits. She offers little supervision. So i preferm to have Mark come to our house to play, where the boys are well-supervised.

No, it isn't equal. But I don't feel either Jonathan's or Mark's mother is taking advantage. They are raising nice children and I'm glad my sons have them as friends. And, in a way, the advantage is mine. i have more opportunity to know and enjoy Steven's and Michael's friends.

Friendship is finding pleasure in another's company. It isn'tm a business deal -- though sometimes, when I consider social vocabulary, it seems to be. "She owesm us a dinner." "We have to take care of our social obligations.m " "They had us, we must pay them back.m "

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost."

For want of an invitation, how many friends are lost?

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