Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Caroline Maguire who’s the author of Why Will No One Play with Me?: The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive. Caroline is a personal coach who works with children struggling with executive function weakness, and their families. A former coach for the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Caroline earned her ACG from the ADD Coach Academy — say that fifty times really quickly — and her PCC from the International Coach Federation. She has a master’s in education from Lesley University. Caroline currently lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children.

Welcome, Caroline. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Caroline Maguire: No problem. I actually listened to an audiobook on my way home from New York this morning. I resemble that remark.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your book called Why Will No One Play with Me? is about? Tell us about this Play Better Plan that you came up with.

Caroline: I wanted to make a guide so parents could know what professionals know but in really jargon-free, user-friendly terms to coach their kid through any social situation, so how to have tough conversations and actually how to build social skills. I felt like as a parent and as a professional, there’s really nothing like that out there. A lot of books talk about the problem, but they don’t really tell you how. How do you do this? The idea behind the book was that it’s really parent friendly. The Play Better Plan is just what we call the plan. There’s steps that parents can follow. What do you do? How do you start? What’s the environment you create? All those steps are given to you. You just follow the yellow brick road.

Zibby: As a parent of four kids, I wish I had this book earlier in my life. There’s no parent who hasn’t had some sort of friend-related issue with a child, instigated by the child, to the child. There’s so many things. You called it that. You called it the playbook for social issues. I thought it was amazing. You identified this, what you called an unmet need crippling millions of women — Women? What am I talking about? Millions of children. This is what happens when I don’t sleep. How did you identify this problem? Tell me about what happened in your practice and the kids you were seeing and when you realized that you were the one who had to write this book.

Caroline: About fifteen years ago when I started working with kids, people often came to me for academics and help their kid who’s disorganized and disheveled and really brilliant but not getting their work done. The same part of the brain that makes social skills and runs them is also the same part of the brain that often affects those academic issues, called executive function. I over and over and over again had these incidents where kids really didn’t care about the academic part. They cared about the friendship part. They would tell me their stories. Then mothers, I found, if you had a kid who was left out and didn’t get a lot of playdates, the parents didn’t have a lot of socialization because no one really invited them anywhere. You invite — we’re all guilty of this — the easy kids, the kids who get along at the barbeque. I had this one little boy. I asked him, “What would you change if you could change anything?” He said to me, “I want to know why no one will play with me.”

It started this ringing in my head. As I was working, I found that anything I could get my hands on in terms of guides to help develop social skills were written for professionals. They were so full of jargon that the average parent couldn’t understand them. Then I kept finding that these social skills — if you weren’t someone with a pretty severe diagnosis, you didn’t get any help anywhere. There’s so many issues going on for all of us nowadays. I started a master’s degree. I told my professors this idea. They were really supportive. Ned Hallowell, who I worked for at the time, was really supportive. All the time I kept thinking, someone’s going to come up with this. I’m working on this this whole time. Someone is going to come up with this because how can people not see that this is a tremendous need? It turns out nobody did. The reason is it’s really a lot to produce this. Also, it’s almost something so obvious that everybody realizes we need but nobody can figure out that we need it. Why Won’t Anyone Play with Me?, it’s about these constant issues that I have seen come up. I’m now a mother. I see it with my own kids and their friends. Parents are constantly — it drives my husband crazy. We arrive at a dinner party, and I’m ushered into the corner. People pepper me with questions. He’s like, “Can we not talk about this for one night?” No, this is what people need.

Zibby: I’m on the board of the Parenting Center of Mount Sinai Hospital. We were brainstorming different books that we’ve all loved and things like that. I mentioned yours. Everyone was like, “Oh, my gosh. I need that book.” I’m like, “Right? It was so great.” One of the things that you said repeatedly in the book, which you say to the parents that you coach is, “If they could, they would.” If your kids could make friends easily, they would. Being punitive and saying, “C’mon, just try again tomorrow,” that’s not going to work, similar to if you don’t know how to play tennis, picking up a racket every day, if no one’s going to teach you, you’re not going to necessarily learn it the right way or the best way. Maybe tennis people would object. Tell me a little more about that, “If they could, they would.”

Caroline: With a lot of childhood things, time kind of heals it. There was a time when I thought my daughter would never ride a two-wheel bike. Then she practiced. She matured. She got it. One day it was as if she’d never not ridden. When they’re crawling, sometimes you’re like, oh, my god, all they do is scoot. Then all of a sudden, they’re crawling and they’re walking. I think what happens with parents is that we get used to this “time moves forward and we just have to wait it out” thing. A lot of our lessons say that. What happens with kids is that, I think every kid wants to be successful. Most kids want to do well and meet our expectations. When they don’t pick this stuff up naturally, it’s sort of mysterious to us, especially because a lot of these kids are so smart about other stuff. I really want to stress to parents, I know we sometimes we worry that our kid is being manipulative or something. The minute you say “If they could, they would” and you stop worrying about that manipulative piece, you reframe everything. You start to realize they really want to do well. If I give them direct instruction, they can learn. Tennis is a perfect analogy because you couldn’t teach me tennis if you spent every minute of every day with me because I’m so unathletic. You’d have to do something special for me. Tennis people everywhere listening to this are going to be like, “What?” It’s not easy for me.

Zibby: You give readers in the book a list of seven things that everyone needs to be able to do to be socially successful. My question is what if the parents themselves don’t necessarily have those skills? What if you’re a parent who’s trying to help your child, but you’re like, can I do this? What do you do then?

Caroline: I get that question a lot. We know that fifty percent of people with children with social skills challenges have social skill challenges themselves. It’s also that we become self-conscious as parents about our own social skills. Should I really be the one teaching them? The thing is that the more you work on your own stuff, what you can do as you work the lessons of this book with your child, the more your child is going to engage in the process. I’ve had a lot of parents who didn’t have great social skills. They do the lessons with their child. They improve their own social skills. Their kid is like, “If you’ll exit your comfort zone, I’ll exit mine.” Whereas when we don’t do stuff and we preach, that’s when especially teenagers really get upset. They’re like, “Hey, you’re not doing it.”

Zibby: What about the fact that as a parent we have to be the coach in this book? What if I’m not a good coach? What if I wouldn’t be a good soccer coach? I keep turning this all back to sports. You’re so great in the book encouraging the reader. Every chapter you’re like, “You got this. You can do it.” Thank you. You even give these eight tactics for being a better coach. As much as you can do from the other side of this book, you helped people do it. Is there somebody who can’t coach? Then what? When what do you do? Do we just send our kids to you?

Caroline: The thing is that you are, as a parent, probably already doing this, just not as well as you could be. We all have our kids get off the bus, come home. We have these endless conversations. We watch and we try to help them with these issues. Mix in, “Why did you talk that way? Your tone wasn’t really good there. Even when you’re hungry, you have to be polite,” all that stuff. I literally had this last night. I gave a speech. A mother said to me, “I heard you last year. I did great for like fifteen minutes. Then I completely fell apart.” The thing is that that was a great fifteen minutes. Tomorrow, you try for twenty minutes. Anybody can do this. I’ve even had really, really authoritarian parents change their style and become more coach-like. My thing is even if you’re imperfect, which is fine, you’re already probably having these conversations, but they don’t go anywhere because you don’t have the tools you need.

Zibby: Your book gives so many tools. I was sitting there thinking, did you come up with all of these things?

Caroline: I did.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You’re so creative. They’re amazing. You’re like a teacher meets babysitter, meets therapist, meets pediatrician.

Caroline: I like to solve problems. I especially like it when people tell me that something is impossible. For instance, a few years ago someone said to me, “You can’t teach social skills via Skype. You just can’t do it. They have to be in person.” Except there are no people to do this in Columbia. There are no people in parts of this country. I’m going to figure it out. How I figured it out was that I trained the parents. The parents become my arms, my legs. We all work together. The tools came out of specific things that came up with kids. “Who is your audience?” was a kid who I just couldn’t get to understand that every person you encounter, they have a reaction to you. If you melt down and they’re two feet from you, they still think about that meltdown. It’s not like you’re behind a hidden cloak. All these things came out of that. Then last summer I did the painstaking thing of writing directions for parents and hunkering down and making them all flow and beautiful. They were all the stuff that I’d used. I knew that they worked.

Zibby: Tell me about some of the strategies like the social spy and the mat where you literally put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Tell me about some of the things you’ve invented that are particularly successful for you.

Caroline: The mat to walk in someone else’s shoes is a parent’s best friend on so many levels. My graphic designer is my cousin. She did all the designs for this book. She and I were talking about — she’s a mom — how we really wish you could literally experience being in someone else’s body. Then you’d really have perspective. We decided that we would do this crazy thing. I got this big mat printed up. I started first giving kids actual shoes. That was really hard because then you have to have all these sizes. Then I had this graphic made up. You can use it for anything. You can use it for, “Hey, want to think about how eating the last piece of pie really affected your brother?” You can also use it for, “When I run your soccer equipment to school every single day, my shoes. What does that do to me?” It’s fun. They like it. It’s interactive. You can take a piece of craft paper and you can draw it out. I will eventually sell it on my website. I haven’t had a chance yet because it’s a whole other project. It’s the ultimate fun thing. By the way, I get teenagers to do this. People always say to me, “It’s just little kids.” No. I also get them to start thinking that they’re not the only beings in the world.

Zibby: Which is good, which is often to get through to them. What about the social spy?

Caroline: Social spy, I use with kids of all ages. The idea behind it is we practice and we rehearse listening in on people and watching them without watching. The reason is that kids with social challenges don’t tend to be great noticers. They don’t read the room. They don’t notice other people. They don’t notice all that social data, especially stuff like mood and context. Teachers will say to me, “I was in such a bad mood. They never realized they should stop pushing me.” As a parent, I’m sure many of you are listening going, “Yeah, why did they push me to the edge?” One of the things we do is give them missions. We have them go out into society, like to a bookstore or to a mall, and watch other people. There’s specific things they’re watching for. Also, they can go to school and find out, what are other people talking about? What does my teacher do when she’s about to lose it? What does she say with her body and her voice? Now I can pay attention to that so that when my teacher is annoyed, I don’t keep nagging at her until I end up in the principal’s office.

Zibby: I like how in the book you even have diagrams. “Here’s a picture of somebody who’s paying attention. Here’s a picture of somebody who could care less.” I’m acting this out for you. Nobody can see this except me and you. In the book, it’s really helpful. When you show a kid something like that, they can get it. If you explain, “Just be nice. Just pay attention,” not having a visual is a hinderance.

Caroline: I was talking about this with a group I talked to last night. I said there’s signs and signals that people are friendly. Then there’s signs and signals that they want to be your friend. A lot of kids either are so paranoid about, what are those signs and signals? that they do nothing and they end up inert, or they mistake just being a pleasant person for real overture to friendship. We have lists of, what are those signs and signals? What does it look like? Then you can act it out. That way now I have a real visual representation of it, not just my mom saying, “Hey, that person was just being nice.” People sometimes don’t pause to pay attention to, what does just being nice look like?

Zibby: I feel like this is when I asked my husband — I was like, “You were flirting with me, right? Were you just being really friendly?” Did we just take this in a totally wrong direction by accident? Maybe this was all a misunderstanding. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Caroline: It can be hard to tell, especially in the teenage world which is super layered, super complicated. There’s all these dynamics. Some kids just don’t read those dynamics easily.

Zibby: Your book is saying that this is not something you’re born with. It’s something that you can fix. It’s not a fixed trait. It’s malleable. That’s your theory. This is how you do it.

Caroline: Yeah, and it’s based on research. It’s not just Caroline Maguire.

Zibby: No, I know. I’m sorry.

Caroline: I tell parents that. It can be fixed. We know it can be fixed. Professionals know how to help this. If your kid’s just really anxious and they don’t have a diagnosis, they’re probably never getting to a professional. Now you as a parent are there on the front line with a kid who every day comes from school and you know they’re not going to the lunchroom. You know they’re not talking to other kids. You know they’re clinging to that one friend who, god help us, they move away. It can be changed. We know how to change it. We’re trying to give parents that tool to change it.

Zibby: Out of curiosity, is there a point at which it’s too late to teach these skills?

Caroline: No. I actually have a few psychiatrists who love to refer adults to me. I really love working with kids. I also believe in it’s never too late. I’ve had adults as old as fifty do different iterations of these things and totally change everything. It all starts with that chapter about the stories where we talk about the stories we tell ourselves, “smart kids don’t have friends” kind of stories. These sixty-year-old adults have stories like, “I’m the smartest person in the room, so it’s okay if I tell everybody,” or the adults who check their phone and they check whether something you said is correct. Then they relay, “This is the correct information.” What I’ve found is that they can change. We start, still, with that story. We talk about that story. Instead of the parents being involved, often their spouse is involved in telling the real deal. “This is what’s going on.”

Zibby: There’s so much good advice in this book. You also organize it in a really great way. You have quizzes so you can figure out, which deficits do you really want to shore up? You can pick which chapter to read based on that. I was thinking I need to take these quizzes four times for each of my kids. I need to get four copies of this book or something. All the ways that you help people get to the information that they themselves need are particularly relevant in a way that you can’t just do off the cuff. In as much as you could do without seeing someone in front of you, I feel like I could find my kids in your book. That was a long way of saying that.

Caroline: Thank you. Before we even sold the book, we spent two years on the organization and the jargon piece. How do you say things in a really user-friendly way and take all of the psychobabble stuff out so that parents aren’t looking words up in the dictionary? You don’t need to do that. We really spent a lot of time on, who are these kids? so that we could make sure that you did see your kid in the book. I’m really glad you like the quizzes. A group last night told me that they were focused solely on the first couple chapters about communication. They were like, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the quizzes.” I said, “That’s okay. I would love it if you did because that can really make such a difference.” I also know that for some families, just that communication piece is so key. They have to start and stay there for a while.

Zibby: I feel like every school should make their parent read this. I want to go to my kids’ school and be like — think about if everybody helped their kids get these social skills, how great that would be, like a class with sixty people, all of whom are implemented the tactics of this book. It would be a dream come true. The teachers would hug us.

Caroline: I would love to have that happen simply because what we’re doing about bullying and stuff right now, it doesn’t work. The conversation we’re having is spinning in the same cycle over and over again. The fact is that the bully, the bystander, and the victim, they all need help. When I do work with schools and I do even just get the teachers to know more, because the teachers are right there faced with all this stuff, it really does make a difference. I am not telling people to bombard their schools. If you do, I have seen it make a difference.

Zibby: I’ll tell them. You don’t have to tell them. Everybody get your school to get this book. Tell me a little more about the process. You spent two years outlining the book. You did that with Teresa Barker, I’m assuming, who you cowrote this with?

Caroline: What happened was I have these great literary agents. They act like a developmental editor. They took the process I had. They took everything that I had laid out. I already had it outlined and laid out in a proposal. Then they helped me work on all the wording. There’s these boxes. We worked on all these questions that parents have. We created lists. We pulled it all together. What are all the things parents are going to say or need answers to? Then Teresa Barker came on board. She helped us make it beautiful and coherent. She’s collaborated on many books, Raising Cain, Spiritual Child, Big Disconnect. She was brilliant also at bringing this all out for me. She would ask me questions. I’d be like, “Oh, yeah!” Also, she is a mother and a grandmother. Basically everyone involved in this process, my editor, my publicist, they’re all moms. They all know why this is so important. It was this great team.

Zibby: You said in your acknowledgments section, “Throughout this journey there were times when I wondered if I should continue, and in each moment the universe sent me a resounding no.” I feel like that you might have had some self-doubt along the way with this book. Is that true?

Caroline: I did because it was such a big, epic thing to take on. There was also this part of me that was like, why haven’t some of these famous PhDs done this yet? I would have these incidents. At one point, I was thinking of going with this smaller publisher. It would’ve been an easier road. A father came up to me on July Fourth at a bonfire. He had never spoken to me before in my life. He knew from his mother, he knew from my mother what I was doing. He said, “If you have a chance to spread this to millions of kids, you have to.” He just started talking. He’s a very shy person. He was like, “My daughter has switched schools because she was so bullied. She’s been so miserable. We struggle with our other two kids. You need to keep going.” That would happen to me at the supermarket, at the nail salon. Somebody would start talking to me. I would realize people really need this. I have to keep going even though it was a little bit daunting at times.

Zibby: It’s really great you didn’t give up.

Caroline: I’m glad I didn’t give up. Now it seems like, of course you didn’t give up. It was all-consuming. At the time I started the proposal, I had a six-month-old.

Zibby: How old are your kids now?

Caroline: My son is five. My daughter is eleven. I’m in two totally different spheres. For him, it’s the playdates. It’s, “Please don’t hog this. Share. Remember your manners.” Then with her, we’re entering that teenage phase where people send horrible texts to a chain of people. You’re like, who gave these kids cell phones? It’s totally polar.

Zibby: I’m in your exact same spot. I have twelve-year-old twins. Then I have a six-year-old and a five-year-old. I have that same divide. The differences between my six-year-old saying, “This boy is so annoying because he keeps coming over and wanting to talk to me,” I’m like, “That’s not annoying. He likes you.” That’s what keeps parenting interesting, all the different issues all the time.

Caroline: It’s great because I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful experience with working with so many kids. When things come up, I’m like, I saw this before. Here we go.

Zibby: What do you have coming next?

Caroline: In terms of next books or in terms of next —

Zibby: — Anything. Take me through the next stage of your life. You’re going to make this mat soon enough when you get the time. “Put your feet on the mat” is coming up.

Caroline: Yep. There’s going to be very soon, maybe even later today, videos going up on my website. I took the real conversations I’ve had with kids because I knew parents would be like, “Wait, I want to see this,” and I had videos made. They’re the real words of real kids. The people doing it are actors because people weren’t like, “Yes please, put my child all over America.” The actual words are the real words of kids. It’s very real. You can see resistant kids and social spy and a full coaching conversation.

Zibby: Wait, what is your website for people who now want to look this up?

Caroline: It’s M-A-G-U-I-R-E. The next phase is also the mat, referred to often as “someone else’s shoes mat,” as well as groups. I’ll have webinars laying all this out and allowing you to participate and get that information live.

Zibby: Have you thought about trying to write this for kids, like a kid would read it with their parent, like a workbook or something like that?

Caroline: I have thought about that. In one of my early plans fifteen years ago, it was a little bit more like a kid would do it. Then I realized that kids who lack self-awareness, they need that guidance. I think the parent was the right way to go for Why Won’t Anyone Play with Me? Down the road, I would definitely think about that. I definitely want to do a book for adults.

Zibby: Excellent, really exciting. Do you have any advice to any aspiring authors out there, and then also anyone struggling with social skills problems in general?

Caroline: My advice for aspiring authors is that there really is a need to be tenacious. If you think you have a good idea, run the search on Amazon. If it doesn’t exist and you think there’s a need, keep going. Don’t give up. I used to run the search and realize, nope, nobody’s done it yet. Okay, keep going. A lot of times, the best ideas are stuff that it’s really obvious but everybody hasn’t done it. Then for social skills what I would say is that, I don’t think it’s ever too late. I really think that if we give this to our children, we’re giving them the greatest gift. This affects the workplace. It affects your interpersonal relationships, your spouse, your partner. We focus so much on academics in this country. Honestly, social is really what makes people happy. I hope that people will try this. Why Will No One Play with Me? can give you something pretty special with your kid.

Zibby: Amazing. Caroline, thank you so much. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for putting this out there and giving parents the hands-on tools that they need to help their kids, which I feel like a lot of times is all we’re looking for, is just someone telling us how we can help. Thank you for doing that.

Caroline: Oh, my gosh, no problem. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course. I’ll be looking for your mat. I’m going to order one. We’ll test out the prototype.

Caroline: That’s fine. You have four kids to test it with.

Zibby: Extra-large mat. Thank you.