Saying a graceful no: Big kids and little kids at the Ice Cream Social

This Friday is Cottage’s annual tradition of filling our kids with forbidden sugar and setting them loose in the sandy wonderland of the yards in the evening, also known as the Ice Cream Social. When I was a parent of an infant and a toddler, I was filled with social anxiety (what if nobody talks to me? What if my potluck dish is too plebeian? What if no one wants to be my friend?), and that made it hard for me to enjoy myself. Now, I have come to know something about myself, and that is, I am more comfortable in a group setting if I have a job to do. So, I like hosting a party, but I’m still pretty quiet and shy attending someone else’s party. Therefore, I always volunteer at my big kids’ school functions now. And wonderfully, I work at Cottage now, and it’s my job to talk to everyone, supervise kids loosely, and participate in the event. That makes me able to function and have fun in a situation I used to find overwhelming.


I was thinking about how much fun my big grade school aged kids have seeing their old friends here at this event, and how the current students in the older classes often follow the bigger kids around, full of admiration, wanting to join the play. These are kids at the top of the social pyramid here in their small pond at Cottage. Most of the time here, they are the big kids that are playing the game everyone wants to play. They have worked so hard, acquiring the skills needed to negotiate play, hammering out the rules, practicing inclusion, and finding roles for everybody within the game.

It sounds like bickering, when they work together to figure out these details, by the way. We adults learn to hold back on coming in and managing the negotiations. We want to, because we want everyone to be kind and we want everyone to be included. As their skills grow, kids really need us to back off and let them sort out the rules. Try it. Sit back and listen.

Now, this morning, I was thinking about the car ride talk I’ll be giving my big kids in preparation for the party, and for Summer Camp, which is similarly mixed age. In my imagined speech, I was going to ask them to include smaller kids and let them play. I can imagine my kids’ “yeah I know, I got it” eye rolls. I also remembered how a four year old acquaintance can decide that they want to play with a bigger kid, and just follow them around all evening. The big kid, feeling cool with their alumni buddies, wants to play what they want to play, and that plan might or might not include their younger friend.

I’ve been thinking about the childhood so many of us had, where we came inside at dinner time, after a full afternoon outside with our friends. We got dropped off at the municipal pool, with a little pocket money for a popsicle and some Garbage Pail Kids from the ice cream truck. We didn’t have Cel phones, but somehow we managed to be where we were supposed to be when our non-air-conditioned family cars came back to retrieve us. We were always in mixed age groups: older and younger siblings, neighbors a year older, or a couple of years younger. I can remember times when the older kids kept me out of a game being played with their same age friends, the big kids. But most of the time, I was included. I remember teasing and excluding my younger brother and his same age friends. But most of the time, we were all together, all negotiating, all playing.

I started thinking about an awkward sixth grade dance, when we were all still friends, but friends getting older and starting to sort ourselves in a new way. Most of the time, we all danced together in a big group. But some of the dances were two person dances, momentary bonds between two friends on the edge of our teen years. I had chances to give an enthusiastic “yes”, and I had opportunities to practice a graceful “no”. A “no” that allows us to carry forth as friends, with no hard feelings. “No”, not to you as a person, but no to this particular invitation at this moment.

When we know we’re going to see someone again, at school together, or because we are neighbors or family friends, or share another bond together, we have a valuable chance to practice enthusiastically saying yes, and kindly, gracefully saying no. It’s a beneficial skill to build here and now, at Cottage, where we are all about social and emotional work. Like the other communication skills we practice, it serves us all our lives, to know how to say what we want, and what we don’t.

So I will probably still talk to my big kids before the party, to remind them to use appropriate language and be inclusive toward younger kids, but I’m not going to follow them around making sure that they do it. That’s parenting, in a nutshell: you relay your values, and then you send your kid out there to make their own choices. I appreciate the freedom to make my own choices, just as I have since I was a sunburned kid eating a popsicle I bought all by myself.


JocelynJocelyn Robertson