Q: I feel mean saying this, but I really don’t like this one friend of my kid. My son is 9. This friend is rude, and he talks back to adults. He’s also not that nice to my kid. He teases a lot, throwing out insults, then saying, “Just kidding.” Frankly, I don’t want his bad influence rubbing off on my son, but my son considers him one of his best friends. To make things even more complicated, this kid is a neighbor, so he’s over all the time. Is there anything I can do to discourage this friendship?
This is a very frustrating situation! Part of you is probably tempted just to forbid your son from playing with this kid. But another part of you probably recognizes that this could cause more harm than good.
What if your son announces to the kid, “I’m not allowed to play with you!”? That makes you seem mean, and it could create difficulties with the neighbors.
What if your son continues the friendship, anyway? Then he’s sneaking, and there’s a rift between you and him.
Then there’s the practical difficulty of seeing the kid all the time because he’s a neighbor.
But the most important reason for not forbidding this relationship is that friendship is personal. Kids can and should make their own decisions about who they like. We don’t get to decide how our children feel.
Be clear about your rules
Different families have different ways of doing things. Rather than fuming silently, and having your irritation grow, you may want to talk directly to the friend to explain your expectations. Being clear about your rules makes it easier for the friend to respect them, which might lower your resentment. For instance, you could say, “In our family, we take our shoes off at the door,” “We eat only in the kitchen,” “Please ask before taking something out of the refrigerator,” or “My bedroom is off-limits for playing.”
You may also want to set limits about when this child can come over. You could say, “You’re welcome to play here until 5 p.m., then you need to head home because we’re having family dinner” or “Please do not come over before 10 am on Saturdays.”
Try to understand the appeal
Try to genuinely understand what draws your child to this friend. You could ask, “What do you like most about him?” or “What do you enjoy doing together?” or “How does he show he cares about you?”
Hearing the answers to these questions might help you see the friend in a new light and lower your irritation with him. The other child probably isn’t a complete devil any more than your kid is always a perfect angel. In general, the more we know about someone, the more we like them.
Help your child think about this relationship
To help your child think about this relationship, you could ask, “How do you usually feel when you’re with him?” This is an important litmus test of friendship.
You may want to bring up specific problems, so your child can plan about how to handle them. You could ask, “What could you do when he does that?” or “What could you say when he tells you to do something you know isn’t right?” or “Why do you think it’s not a good idea to talk to adults like that? What’s a better way to handle things?”
It may be useful to go broad. Ask your child, “What do you think it means to be a good friend?” Then ask him to consider whether this boy meets his definition of a good friend. Your goal isn’t to force your son to admit that this kid is a bad friend, but just to help him think things through.
Encourage other friendships
Sometimes kids stick with a not-so-kind friend because they feel they have no other options. We can’t make friends for our kids, but we can create opportunities for them to make or deepen other friendships.
You could help your child get involved in new after-school activities or encourage him to invite different friends over for a playdate. You could also invite another family with kids your son’s age over for a family game night.
Being around other, easier-to-deal-with friends might provide a useful contrast for your child.
Focus on the long term
Development is on our side. Your child is growing and changing, as so is the other boy. Over time, maybe they will grow apart, or maybe both kids will grow up and the friendship will become stronger. Either way, your child will learn from being in this friendship. Just like with romantic relationships, sometimes kids need to experience what they don’t like in a friendship to figure out what they do want.