I am looking for expressions in English for a child that stubbornly refuses to play with others, for example a group of other children, although they are friendly and inviting and actually would like the one child to join their group, say, out of a sense that it is better to cooperate in a group than to isolate oneself.

Could be a word, or any other expression.

"Spoiler" comes to my mind but I don't know if this is applicable to a situation like above.

I would look for expression that - when used in metaphors to describe the behaviour of powerful protagonists in society (not children!) - may sound ironic or slightly sarcastic.

Note (added later): as commenters below stated that they would refuse answering this question because it was cruel towards children displaying such behaviour I hereby officially declare that I do not intend to use the term(s) with regard to real children. I was thinking of other, less vulnerable entities such as politicians, companies, associations, etc. This is meant for metaphors in newspaper articles.

(By the way, I find it irritating that so many people obviously vote this question down not because it is a bad question but because they presume I was about to abuse children with these terms. Is this called helicoptering?)

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    Loner, lonewolf, shy, keeps to himself?
    – Mohit
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:06
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    It would depend on the reason why the child is staying away. Introverted, on-the-spectrum, self-sufficient, socially awkward, independent, etc.
    – 1006a
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:17
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    if you are seekeing to be ironic or sarcastic you might say they were a 'real joiner' or 'the life and soul of the party'. I really don't know what you mean by picturesque in this context. I won't pretend I'm comfortable with the idea of being sarcastic or mocking about a child wanting to be left to their own devices, so I'm going to hope this is for a piece of fiction and you are looking for words for the villain of the piece to use.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:43
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    @Spagirl Good point. Whatever the reason for the child's self-imposed isolation, surely they don't need to have it worsened by cruel name-calling. I'm not going to volunteer an answer to this question.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:57
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    Spagirl: Oh, yes, I did not consider using this in situations with real children. Rather in other situations where such behaviour occurs, with other entities involved. Think of politicians, companies, associations, etc. Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:58

4 Answers 4


you might consider the adjective:


[ret-uh-suh nt] adjective

1. disposed to be silent or not to speak freely; reserved.

2. reluctant or restrained.

It doesn't stand on it's own and it's not in a child's vocabulary(and probably is too formal to try to encourage that too).

I think saying something like a "reticent participant" or "reticent to participate" spares some of the pejorative aspects of other terms while still pointing to the outcome of not joining in. It suggests more that it could be of a personal nature of shyness but also suggests there might be something(unsaid) making the person or child particularly cautious or tentative about taking a step.

There might be a sort of humor in using a formal word like 'reticent' with a toddler .. I'm not sure if that is the sort of humor you're looking for or if it is pronounced enough

  • Thank you. "Reticent toddler"... hm... yes... I understand the humour. - I never intended to use this on a real toddler, of course. I rather intended to compare politicians (countries, organisations, companies) to children on the playground, and one of them is simply inaccessible to the nice invitations of the others, for reasons nobody understands (or perhaps a psychiatrist would). Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 18:39

How about spoilsport, party-pooper, bad apple, or stick-in-the-mud?

Curmudgeon and misanthrope tend to refer to adults, but might be helpful for inspiration.

A good adjective would be recalcitrant (according to this dictionary definition 'recalcitrant' can also be used as a noun, but I've never encountered this usage)

ETA: My understanding, as someone new to contributing to Stack sites, is that the purpose of this Stack is to discuss, descriptively, how the English language is used. Perhaps I should be more of a skeptic here, but it did not occur to me that there might be any malice in the OP's post, nor is there any malice in mine.

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    I suspect I won't be alone on this site in having been that child. So while I don't take issue with anyone answering the question, I'd just like to put out a plea from the kid that was the spoilsport, party-pooper who was also sometimes shit scared and mostly deeply uncomfortable, to remind people that words can hurt. As can being forced into interaction you don't want.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:48
  • Hi @Spagirl! I'm brand new to answering questions on Stack sites. I tend to use it passively for getting out of Python-related messes, but wanted to start being active in my area of expertise as appreciation for those who help me. My academic background is in language and creative writing, so this seemed like a good place to start. I interpreted the question as coming from a creative writing perspective, to describe an experience, and did not read it as someone looking for an epithet to be used on anyone. My apologies if that was the incorrect assumption.
    – CM Myers
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 18:40
  • Hi there, as i said, I've no issues with anyone answering the question, or even asking it. I was just indulging my urge to add a rider clause.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 23:00

A child who stubbornly refuses to play with other children can be called

standoffish: Aloof or reserved. (American Heritage, found at thefreedictionary.com - but look at the other definitions on the page as well.)

But for your purposes, I think a hint is provided by the song "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer":

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Had a very shiny nose

And if you ever saw it

You would even say it glows

All of the other reindeer

Used to laugh and call him names

They never let poor Rudolph

Join in any reindeer games

So, if I were going to describe aloof behavior of a powerful protagonist in society, and I wanted a cute phrase, I might say

The problem with (name-of-politician) is that s/he doesn't like to join in any reindeer games.

If I think of a child who comes over and kicks down my tower of blocks, just to be mean, then I would say this child is


  1. Shunning the society of others; not sociable.

  2. Hostile to or disruptive of the established social order; marked by or engaging in behavior that violates accepted mores: gangs engaging in vandalism and other antisocial behavior.

  3. Antagonistic toward or disrespectful of others; rude.

(American Heritage)

If the child is not joining in (which is also a phrase you could use), but not out of meanness, then you could describe the child as

disengaged, withdrawn or detached (I'll let you look these up)

I would be able to narrow down the choices if you gave us a sample sentence.

(You are misusing spoiler and helicopter. Look up spoil, spoiled, and spoiler, and helicopter parent.)

  • Does not want to join in any reindeer games is very close to what I had in mind. Thank you. As for 'helicoptering' which I seem to have misused: yes, I sense that. Helicoptering is probably more about not leaving freedom and privacy to your child, whereas I used it here, perhaps wrongly, for *trying to fend off hostile thirds from your child", or shortly: overprotecting. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 12:57
  • As for a sample sentence: think of how UK is behaving towards the other children on the playground... uh... the other countries in the EU. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 12:59
  • @ChristianGeiselmann - Yes, I think you've got helicopter parent now. // If I think of how things might go wrong on the playground: there are bullies, misfits, children who don't fit in (pretty similar to misfits but not so strong), children who are inflexible, and children who say, "If you won't play by my rules, I'm going home, and I'm taking my ball with me." I have a feeling it's this last image that is what you're thinking of. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 20:08

Shy :nervous or timid in the company of other people.

I was pretty shy at school.

As a teenager I was painfully shy.

It seems shy is rather an apt and friendly word to call such a child.

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