Playground relationships aren’t all fun and games. Here, some tips on what to do when you want to give your child's friendship a time out.
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Ah, friendship! It’s adorable when your baby meets her first little buddy—even when most of their play is parallel and the rest consists of eating the sand in the sandbox. As children grow and form richer relationships with other children, those friendships add immeasurably to their lives—and their parents’ lives, too.
It’s hard to imagine when comparing notes on pediatricians or what to put in a preschooler’s lunchbox that the other parent you’re gabbing with could become a crucial friend, or that the 3-year-old stealing your little angel’s favorite toy will be the second teenager you hug when they both graduate from high school.
But I can tell you it’s true.
What about when it goes wrong? What about that one kid, you know the one—the kid who lies or can’t share, the one who just screams “bad influence,” or the one who makes your kid cry? Worse, what if the kid who does all those things that make you crazy just happens to be the kid your kid just … adores?
I’ve been there, too. And while I don’t pretend to have a lot of answers, I learned a thing or two along the way.
Keep Your Mouth Shut
Unless and until your kid’s friend tries to talk him into microwaving the cat or stealing all your money, try your best not to speak ill of him. Especially as kids get old enough to start taking their friendships seriously—say, early grade school—they will feel very protective of their friends, and defensive when they feel you’re criticizing them.
Let Things Run Their Course
If your child is generally sane, after awhile they’re not going to want to hang out with a friend who makes them feel bad, as most bad friends tend to do. No matter how sane a kid may be, they are all stubborn and resistant to parental advice (or maybe that’s just my kids): The more you listen and the less you talk, the sooner they’ll be ready to give up a friendship that isn’t working. Unless something really dangerous or damaging is going on in the friendship, this is the path to follow.
Focus on the Behavior, Not the Friend
It might be useful to ask: What do I hate about this friend? Is it an aspect of her behavior—teasing, cheating, bossing around, being manipulative?—or is it something about her as a person? If you can identify the stuff that the irritating friend does that bugs you, keep your eye out for it. If what they’re doing is against the rules at your house, whether it’s name-calling, hitting, or what have you, enforce the rule—on both kids. (If the problems are truly serious, as they can be in tweens and teens—think eating disorders, substance abuse, cutting—it’s time to call in professional help.) But if you find yourself hating the kid because of something that really doesn’t matter, or isn’t her fault—her dumb (to you) My Little Pony obsession, her moronic (to you) wardrobe or haircut—keep that to yourself. You can do it. You’re the adult here.
When the Problem Is the Friend’s Parent
Sometimes your child’s friend is wonderful, adorable, just a great kid, but you absolutely can’t stand the parent. At this point you may ask yourself: Should I try to torpedo this friendship before I find myself having to go on museum playdates with this annoying person? If you love your kid, and your kid loves his friend, I’d suck it up. Nine times out of ten, childhood friendships wax and wane on their own. Don’t be the jerk who screwed things up for your kid because the other mother or father has an annoying laugh or the wrong taste in music. Besides, remember your own childhood friends? A few of their parents were weird as hell—but getting to know them taught you something (whether not to judge a book by its cover or to appreciate your own crazy folks more).
Look at Your Own Friendships
Parenthood is magical, the fulfillment of the greatest kind of love a human being can know, blah blah blah. But you need your friends, too. Don’t let becoming a parent allow you to stop nurturing your own relationships outside the family—you need them for support, for fun, and for someone to complain to when that creepy kid has come over again. Bonus point: Watching you value your friendships shows your offspring that this is an important part of life, not just kid stuff.
When Your Kid’s the Bad Friend
What could be worse than witnessing another kid hurt your child’s feelings? The reverse. A special kind of shame can swamp you when your child hurts someone else—a great wave of wondering what you did wrong. The truth is, it’s usually nothing you did wrong (kids can be jerks sometimes), but it’s up to you to set them right. And if you can’t find the right words (as most of us can’t)…
Let Books Do the Teaching
Help your child see that she shouldn’t put up with a friend who is hurtful, or who leads her into trouble. Even more crucially, she should try hard not to be that kind of friend herself. Some of the best kids’ books resonate with wisdom about friendship. Two concern Frances, the beloved badger, who brilliantly double-crosses her cheating friend Thelma in A Bargain for Frances and teaches fair-weather friend Albert a lesson in Best Friends for Frances. Every single installment of the Frog and Toad series shows the two navigating the thicket of love, envy, competition, and hurt feelings that best-friendship entails. And for older kid—especially those who have experienced the trauma of losing friends—there is no better kindred spirit than the prickly, difficult Harriet of Harriet the Spy.
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