It can be lonely out there on the playground

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The Independent Online
"Nobody would play with me today. I have no friends at school." It's the kind of tearful statement that strikes at the heart of any parent. When it happened to us, quite out of the blue and amid the bathtime bubbles, my wife immediately decided that either we had betrayed Miranda by bringing her up quite wrongly for the last seven years, or that her school was wholly unsuitable. The truth was likely to lie somewhere between those two responses so we contacted her teachers.

I didn't expect a lot. When I was a schoolboy in the Sixties and Seventies the prevailing attitude was that you were there to learn, and if you had no friends, there was probably something wrong with you. It certainly wasn't the staff's concern. If my parents had gone along and confessed that I felt unloved, I would have died.

So I was surprised at the reception I got. First of all, the headmistress didn't tell me that all little girls have days when they feel no one likes them. Instead, she said that although personal and social education is not on the national curriculum for seven-year-olds, she does take assemblies on the subject.

Classes are asked to discuss, for example, how to involve a fifth person who wants to join a four-sided game, to discuss what would make someone feel unpopular, and even to debate the social shortcomings of a pupil who turns his or her back on somebody who enters the classroom.

But more than convince me that the school actively promoted tact, the headmistress explained that now I had alerted her to Miranda's worries, she would ensure that all the ancillaries who patrolled the playground were made aware of our concern. I assumed this was a fact-checking exercise. After all, we can all remember that five minutes without anyone to play with can feel like a day without friends. But no, the ancillaries at Miranda's school are required to be pro-active, organising games when they seem to be needed and offering loners the chance to get involved.

I was warned that even the most compassionate and committed school cannot actually make a child popular with other pupils, only ameliorate the effects. Parents need to take a sanguine approach. To question children nightly about whom they've been playing with may actually exacerbate what may be only a temporary problem.

Some children are going to be loners whatever we do. Buying our sons and daughters the latest this and that may help them to fit into the group but it will not buy them popularity.

The bathtime lamentation has passed. Last week Miranda, who had hitherto seemed a socially well-adjusted seven-year-old, told me she was so "poplier" that some days she has to ration her friends. Whether the school's attitude and policies were instrumental in this it's difficult to tell.

But I did find it very reassuring to know that my concerns had been heeded, and I would advise other parents whose child complains of even mild ostracism to take it up with the school. The words of Miranda's headmistress seem extremely sensible: "We can't work miracles, but parents have a right to have this problem taken seriously."