When kids are little, we bring them to playgroups and baby classes, where we pick friends for them. Most of the time, parents and toddlers get along, and if there is a personality conflict that the parents do not want to work out, the friendship ends.
All that changes when children start preschool and select their own pals. Unfortunately, we are not always happy with their choices.
As parents, we think we know what is best for our children, and we have preferences for the friends and parents we invite on play dates. Sometimes, it is hard to put aside those preferences and not rely on instinct to prejudge others.
“Linda,” a mom of a first and a fourth grader at PS 209 in Manhattan, says, “We have more experience, and we know the values we want to embrace.”
Still, experts agree that avoiding play dates based on instinct alone is not good, reminding us that a child who parents avoid may possess positive attributes that are visible to our children, but not apparent to us.
Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” and the recently released “Masterminds and Wingmen,” cautions against prejudging others.
Wiseman also frowns on snap decisions based upon disapproval of different parenting styles.
“It’s not fair to punish the child for the mother’s behavior,” she tells me, pointing out that a mother’s parenting style may also differ from a father’s.
Brooklyn-based school social worker Lori Hiller agrees. She notes that many of us mothers are ourselves very different from our mothers, and we shouldn’t reject our children’s pals based on our perception of their parents.
A parent’s preference
According to Hiller, parents and caregivers can and should take more than their child’s preference into consideration.
“Your child will ‘read the mood’ if you are unhappy at the other person’s house,” she says.
“Carol,” the mother of a PS 6 second grader in Manhattan agrees.
“My son will know if I don’t like his playmate.” She also says she lets him come to the realization that a friendship is not a good fit, asking him, “How do you think the play date went?” — when she knows her son shares her frustration.
If a parent doesn’t particularly like a friend, but does not want to nix the play date entirely, there are options. Hiller suggests an “outside” play date, so the children can play without “putting the parent in a ‘tight spot.’ ” If that’s not possible, Carol suggests moms with babysitters send the babysitter on the play date.
In addition, Wiseman notes that parents need to explain their reasons for not wanting a play date to a child younger than 8, but it is different with older children on “drop off” play dates. Even then, just blurting out your distaste is not the best approach.
Family values and friendship standards
Chances are, some of a playmate’s poor behavior will bother your child, too. Linda recommends asking your child, “Does this feel good to you?” or “Are you comfortable with this behavior?” when faced with a friend behaving badly. If your child still feels strongly about keeping up the friendship, Carol then suggests setting boundaries for behavior that you will find acceptable, and talking about it.
Often, children will tell parents about their conflicts with friends, which will provide parents with another opportunity “to discuss their friendship standards with them — what they like and don’t like in a friend’s behavior — and what they want to do if their friend is violating those standards,” Wiseman says.
Author of “Odd Girl Out,” Rachel Simmons advises parents: “Be sure values are clearly crafted in the family.” She says it is our duty as parents to recognize “ethical violations,” share our values, and model them for our children to help them understand why some behaviors are wrong. By doing this, we can help them decide for themselves what traits they look for in friends. Mothers whose daughters witness them gossiping regularly or totally obsessing over brand names will have a hard time condemning those behaviors in others.
Hiller says that by a certain age, describing how you don’t like a certain friend of your child’s because of your values will cause the child to defend that friend. Although you can explain your own thinking and wait for children to reach the same decision themselves, they may not, and it is important for them “to learn to make their own mistakes,” Hiller says.
Unacceptable behavior and forgiveness
Some playmates are little terrors. Carol says she won’t deny her kid a play date with such a friend, but limits those play dates to the other kid’s house, where that child can make messes or smear tomato sauce on the wall, if that’s his unchecked predisposition.
There are many other reasons a parent might dislike a potential friend. A friend might hyper-focus on brand-name toys or labels. Wiseman emphasizes the importance of “not com[ing] across to your child as disapproving of her friends,” nor just simply telling your child that she can’t have the play date because her friend is spoiled.
Instead, she counsels parents to initiate a dialogue and make it a teachable moment, asking the child such things as why she thinks the other kid talks about possessions so much, if she thinks the friend’s goal is to impress others, and why she thinks her friend finds it so important to own certain things.
Parents sometimes witness young friends’ behavior that they would never tolerate in adult counterparts. And yet, it seems as if the children often forgive their friends anyway.
“Kids are more tolerant of each other and more willing to call each other out, articulating their feelings and then forgiving,” says Simmons.
She says that parents tend to not own up as readily.
Some kids lie, spread cruel gossip or even “borrow” an item without permission.
Wiseman says the subject of the lie is significant. Some lies are merely rooted in common insecurities about “keeping up” materially, and although a parent should reinforce the evils of rampant consumerism and lying, generally, she can help her child understand there are times all of us feel insecure about fitting in.
Other playmates make promises they do not keep. In such situations, Wiseman recommends telling your child she can opt to say nothing, but should remember that the friend is unreliable. Or, she can confront the friend.
“Identify what happened and learn how to articulate [their disappointment with the broken promise] in a straightforward and ethical way,” she advises.
Wiseman adds, forgiveness can be important and even with true, heartfelt apologies, the hurt one need not reciprocate with immediate forgiveness. She tells parents to teach their children to understand a true apology, which should, “Be said with a sincere tone of voice, recogni[tion] of the thing that was hurtful, and offer to make amends.”
Hiller says that a child’s willingness to forgive readily “is a lesson, too. We don’t want to teach our children not to forgive — but parents can still ‘plant a seed.’ ” She says you can tell your child that you don’t usually forgive someone as easily, and hope she follows suit, but cautions that such an approach may backfire if your child is trying to separate from you.
The road to independence
Hiller notes that children “start gravitating towards others as early as infancy,” when they show a preference for one relative over another. She says that as children begin to select their own playmates, parents should try to allow them to play with others who make them comfortable, saying, “supporting our children’s independence means supporting the choices they make, while keeping them safe — and that is true with their [choice of] friends.”
We care about who our children pick as friends, because we feel it is our job to guide them, and we want them to make “the right choices,” subjective as that is. But, as Hiller points out, we need to let go and separate here a bit, too, just as we do with their choice of age-appropriate clothing, music, and TV.
Minefield of adolescent friendship
In middle school, our children’s social ties diversify, and we hear about new friends, some of whom are suddenly experiencing new levels of independence, perhaps too soon. These kids may be free to go places and do things you feel your child is not yet prepared for. Some socialize at unsupervised houses, and others sneak into R-rated movies. Parents may have approved of these same playmates in grade school, but they may behave differently now.
Simmons says we may still limit our child’s exposure to these friends by refusing to take them or allow them to hang out in places we don’t sanction. She says there are some decisions we may need to make as parents, which can put our children’s social status on the line, especially for this age group, which craves acceptance, and it will take courage.
Once children reach their teen years, some parents feel as if all their youngster’s friends might be engaging in unsafe or illegal behavior. If that is the case, Wiseman says your teen should ideally have one or more friends not interested in pursuing these activities. Concerned parents should tell host parents what their teen said they experienced at the host’s house, despite the discomfort. It is that discomfort that “stops us from being parents,” Wiseman says. She also stresses that children are never ostracized just for having parents who speak out; it is even likely that other kids will feel sorry for them.
In addition, if you are certain drugs or alcohol are in use in one home, you can forbid your teen from going there. It may not be easy to enforce, but it is worth the effort.
Simmons warns concerned parents to not assume their child is “the hapless victim of their peers.” It would be wise, she advises, to reach out to teachers or coaches, to get other adults’ impressions of your child, and try to piece together the whole picture.
As kids get older, it is usually better to refrain from repeated criticism of their friends. If you reinforced your value system for years, they already know precisely how you feel. You do not need to constantly remind your child of your dislike for a particular buddy, who she may even designate as “the one you hate.” No doubt, your preferences are already in her head. In such a case, constant reiteration of your distaste can only serve to drive a wedge between you and your teen.
. . .
As our children age, we will fade more and more into the background when it comes to their social choices. When they are younger, we have more influence over their decisions, but as they proceed through adolescence we can still be there to parent and advise. The hope is that by setting boundaries when they are young and instilling proper values, they will ultimately seek out kind, supportive, and caring people to call friends.