My neighbors fight with my children...friend problems

My children love playing with the kids next door, but it seems that the neighbor kids do something rude/unkind every few weeks (or more often).  I'm not naive enough to believe that my kids are always totally without blame, but I am good friends with mother of these kids, and she has told me several times that this is pretty normal behavior for her kids and that my kids don't act like that.  My kids (8 yo girl, 7 yo boy) have learned to pretty much just expect rude comments and behavior from the 9 yo neighbor boy and don't have a lot to do with him anymore, but the 8 yo old girl always throws them for a loop.  For example, she acts like their best friend for a long time, then she will tell someone else (another sibling or neighborhood child) that she really hates them and doesn't like playing with them (or something similar).  Then the child she has said this to invariably lets her comments slip to my kids and they feel confused and hurt.  They have even asked her about it and then she denies ever saying it.   
I feel unsure of how to help my kids deal with this type of thing!  I know their Mom doesn't approve of this type of behavior, and that she tries to teach and discipline them when they act like this, but I don't really think it's appropriate or healthy for me (or my kids) to bring it to her attention every time it happens and expect her to do something.  Is this normal behavior for children of this age?  Is this just how girls are and should I expect that my daughter is doing the same types of things?  Should I be expecting that my kids are not telling me the whole story when stuff like this happens--that they are acting badly too?  Should I be encouraging them to find other friends or is this to be expected with all kids?  How do I teach them to not let themselves be picked on while still realizing that they won't always get their way in everything and to find ways to play together that everyone enjoys?

Great Question!  Twice per month a group of girls meets at my home to discuss a book and do activities based on the book.  This group of girls is so sweet!  They all speak kind words to each other, share things, and feel bad for each other when someone is sad or hurt.  They try to help each other succeed.  This group of girls are ages 6-10 years old.  I never knew a group of girls this age could behave this way. 

When I grew up I had two good friends.  Every single week two of us would gang up on the other one and say mean things and leave her out.  We loved to dominate how the other friend felt, and we became addicted to judging each other; not to mention the fact that all the drama gave us lots to talk about and made life seem more grown up than it really was.  

A while ago a new girl started coming to our group.  After her first two times meeting with the darling 6-10 year old girls who visit my home each month, her mother had a talk with me.  She said that her daughter loved the group so much.  She told me her daughter noticed a huge difference between this group and another group she used to attend.  This girl's old group used to gossip and backbite each other.  The girl was amazed that my girls didn't do this.  She felt a spirit of love she hadn't felt in other groups.  This girl's mom was so excited to have girls like this for her daughter to play and learn with. 

One time we had a new girl come to our group who was used to participating in judging, attention seeking, and backbiting.  This girl tried to bring these things to the group.  The girls in the group welcomed her with open arms, but didn't want to be surrounded by her negativism.  For a while she was alone during play time.  The other girls didn't like how she played.  Soon this girl changed some of the ways she was playing with the girls in our group and had more fun and success in the group.  I think this girl must have other friends whom she plays with which judge, and backbite though, becuase she seems to put on a new face when she comes over.  Sometimes she reverts back to old ways as well. 

I hope this story is helpful.  The reason I share it is to answer some of your questions posed above.  Do little girls naturally behave like you describe your neighbor's behavior?  Yes and No.  Yes, if the girl is in an environment a lot of the time which allows this sort of socialization, or if her socialization goes unchecked while she plays.  No, if the girl feels she is in a socially safe environment where she is accepted and loved, and her social skills are analyzed and discussed from time to time with an adult.  Acceptance is a huge motivator for backbiting.  For some reason our subconscious mind thinks that if we can expose someone else's weaknesses, we will somehow appear to be better and stronger, thus more socially appealing.  This behavior is an old selfish behavior which can only be solved by regular association in safe environments, and love. 

You asked if you should assume your daughter does the same things.  Well, my rule is that I always assume my child could be doing all sorts of behaviors so that I can remember to observe her and teach her proper social rules on a regular basis.  My best advice is, while you should definitely be your child's best advocate, don't rule out the option that your child could be doing the very same thing in certain social settings.  I would do my best to dissect the social behavior and its causes for my child, so that she could not need to be offended, but instead feel compassion for a little girl who is very insecure and power hungry.  I would teach her exactly what to say in these kinds of social settings.  I would also start a group of some sort with girls who exemplify what you want your daughter to become.  If such a group doesn't exist, make one up.  Have a club.  Meet a few times per month to discuss something really cool, like Laura Ingalls or baking.  Look upon these girls as future women that need your help.  Show them how a really fun inspiring woman speaks of others.  Teach them social ettiquete and tell them what people really think of them when they say certain things.  I don't shy away from doing small corrective teachings to other youth in my home if they are acting socially out of line.  I simply pull them aside and say, "You are talking bad about one of your friends.  You should only speak good of other people, or you should choose not to say anything, because did you know that when you talk bad about one person, is actually makes you look bad?  Your friends will automatically assume that you are the kind of a person who would talk bad about them too.  Maybe you can be the person in our group who helps conversations stay kind."  An interaction like this is much more motivating than working through their parent or something.  Besides, you are learning these great self-government skills, use them.  Say what went wrong, how to fix it and give a rationale for fixing the behavior.  

So, should you encourage new friends?  This is up to you.  If I was not completely satisfied with my daughter's friends, I would pray for direction to help her find the ones she needs.   I would control play time better.  Pre-teach her on how to handle social situations before she plays, and check up with her after.  Or, you simply take the girls around you and raise them up to be the kind of friends which you want for your child.  If there are disputes in the future.  Simply ask your daughter and her friend which spoke ill of her over for a ladies ice cream party.  You and the two of them make some banana splits,  and talk.  You bring up the incident and hear both sides.  Then tell each girl what it means to be a friend; site a story from your childhood; and give them a vision of how happy life can be if they always respect each other, and speak kindly.  Have them do some role plays.  You can play like you are someone trying to get them to say bad things about each other.  Have them practice handling the situation.  Making an event like this will make a memory that will make a difference.  After this very elaborate, girl-like, pre-teach, if they are mean again, you can simply pull them both aside and help them figure out where they went wrong, and what they should do to fix it. 

If one person always tells lies to try to get out the situation, you simply say, "I know you say you didn't do this, but I have no other choice than to believe you did.  What you should have done was...."  Help all the girls succeed.  They are learning too.  And, if your two families are really good friends except for this problem, I would say it is worth it to just teach the neighbor's girl too.  Whoever really lied will get what's coming to them eventually.

Don't always give your own child the golden halo either.  Make sure that even if the other child was at fault, you teach your child how to better handle her side of the social situation.  We can't teach our children how to govern their own behaviors if we don't bring to their attentions what behaviors need work. 

 How do I teach them to not let themselves be picked on while still realizing that they won't always get their way in everything and to find ways to play together that everyone enjoys?

You are right.  In most social situations like these, we all have control over if we are a victim or not.  The best way to help your child prepare for situations like this is by practicing what to do ahead of time.  Take 10 minutes and teach your child how you handle these sorts of situations.   Then, think up real situations which you have seen happen and practice a few scenarios each day for a while until she seems to be in more control of her social destiny.  Make sure she sees that the person who remains calm in social situations is usually the person who really has the most control, because that is the only person in the situation who can still think clearly.  Teach her how to disagree appropriately with her friends.  Practice this skill too.  Pre-teaching prepares our children to succeed socially.  You really can teach absolutely anything ahead of time. 

I really like the fact that these kids live right next door and that my younger children can be involved in playing somewhat with the older kids, that they are playing outside (except on rare occasions), and that both Moms can see what they are doing (our yards aren't fenced).  So I would really like to be able to have them make their friendship a positive one. However, when I talk to my husband about friends, he thinks we should be helping our kids find more friends and friends that they would play with more individually, like having them invite someone over from their school class (our kids go to public school for half the day, and homeschool for half the day), but I don't really feel comfortable inviting someone over when I don't know anything about them or their family except that the kids are in the same class, especially knowing that if we invite someone over, at some point they will likely invite our kids to their house.  I think when they are older that would be appropriate OCCASIONALLY, but besides the fact that it could get really time-consuming for me (trying to coordinate everything for all our kids) at their ages I don't think it is appropriate.  We do have a group activity once a week with other homeschoolers, and they interact with kids at church each Sunday too, but my husband thinks they need to be exposed to more kids than those in the group and the neighbors and those at church.  Am I being lazy or overprotective or stifling their social development because I don't want to pursue a lot of other time with friends?

First off, the reason your children continue to play with children who sometimes bully them, is because they are there.  They are the neighbors.  Whoever is outside already is usually always the first person your child is going to think of  to play with.  I have even closed my blinds for certain portions of the day over the years to help my children think past who they see outside at the minute.  Children are anxious people; it's part of being a child.  If they see someone having fun, they can't stop thinking about joining the fun until they are there. 

You are right to be cautious about inviting friends over who you don't know.  It is always awkward to start a relationship and then have to try to figure out how to end it because it wasn't a good choice.  Besides, how many contacts does an 8 year old need anyway? 

There is always a possibility your child is playing too much.  Set certain times for freinds each week, the rest of the time she can just play with family.  On these set times, invite good friends over for special play times.  If she has to see a friend every day, she might be telling you she needs a break from friends any way.  I know you didn't say this, I just thought I would throw the Junk Food Principle in here too.  I discuss this principle on the first CD of my set. 

As far as the last question goes, you will stiffel your child's proper social development most if you turn them loose too often with the neighborhood.  I have observed that a properly socialized person is not dependent upon social interaction to be happy like many people are now days, but instead, knows how to behave socially when the times arise, but is happiest at home engaging in purpose filled activities with family.  If you focus on family relationship building first, and have occasional friend time for social practice, as well as church, then your child will be far better socialized than the majority of her peers who probably spend all their days worrying about the latest social drama or hurt feelings.  Each person only really needs one or two close friends who think like-minded to be socially happy.  If you have more, great, but it is not psychologically necessary. 

In the end family will always be there, but neighbors won't, so keep your priorities straight.  Family time is usually always more important than peer time.

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