When Leigh Watts* moved to a small town in Nova Scotia, she thought she’d found best pals for both herself and her daughter, Megan,* in their neighbours. “It seemed like the perfect situation: I liked the mom, and the kid seemed nice enough,” says Watts.
Everything was peachy for the first year. “We’d all hang out together and do lots of mommy-daughter things,” she recalls. But around the time Megan turned six, the other kid started being mean. “Megan would be over there and the girl would refuse to play with her, shut her out of her room or tell Megan she didn’t like her anymore,” says Watts. Poor Megan was enamoured with the girl, though, who was a year older and whom she firmly considered to be her best friend.
Watts knew if she forbade Megan from spending time with the neighbour, it could make matters worse. “I didn’t want this kid hanging around my kid, but Megan really liked her, so what do you do?” she says. “You can’t choose their friends. If Mom says someone is bad, that person is immediately more interesting.”
That’s the thing—as your kid grows older, you have less say in who he hangs out with. The child with the screechy-high, grating voice. The entitled one who wants to be entertained when she visits. The rudest little sh*t you’ve ever met. These are the people your own angel may decide are her friends—which means you have to interact with them. Can’t stand your kid’s BFF? Here’s how to deal with it.
As much as you want to get involved, Calgary parenting coach Julie Freedman Smith says often the best course of action is to hold your tongue. “Our kid’s friends are our kid’s friends; they’re not our friends,” she says.
You have to ask yourself: What exactly is it that I don’t like about this child? If the friend just rubs you the wrong way, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope the friendship runs its course.
Coach from the sidelines
If the friend’s behaviour is concerning or causing issues—the friend is belittling your child or his rude behaviour is rubbing off—it’s worth having a chat with your kid about what makes a good friend, how to handle sticky social situations and how you expect her to act. But don’t step in right away.
When Stephanie Horne’s* son, Wyatt, was six, he became friends with a kid in his class. Less-than-desirable behaviour made the boy unpleasant to be around, though. “He was rude to us—complaining that we weren’t making our playdates fun enough, the food we served was gross and the toys we had were boring,” says Horne. When Wyatt started emulating the boy’s rude style, Horne and her husband not only disciplined him but also started encouraging him to build friendships with different people. “I talked to Wyatt about other kids at school he wanted to become friends with, and I initiated playdates with them,” she says. “Eventually, he broadened his friend network, and the boy faded in importance.”
Freedman Smith suggests keeping the focus on your own child if he starts picking up bad habits from a friend. Talk to your kid about acceptable behaviour in your family. Don’t blame the other kid, as this takes the responsibility out of your child’s hands. For example, say, “When you’re with Ethan, I think you forget your manners.”
When to step in
In Watts’s case, while the girl’s mother acknowledged and was embarrassed by the mind games her daughter played with Megan, she said she felt unable to control it. So Watts stopped allowing playdates. Obviously, if your child is suffering emotional or physical abuse at the hands of a friend, you’ll want to intervene, but what about when the situation is less severe?
Horne wondered whether she was being unreasonable about her son’s rude friend. “I struggled with where the line was—where I should steer the situation versus giving my son the freedom to navigate and learn within his own friendship,” she says.
If you know the friend’s parents well and decide to speak to them, stick to factual observations. “Don’t say, ‘Your kid is mean,’” advises Freedman Smith. “Say, ‘I’ve noticed that he keeps hitting my son.’” If the other parents aren’t concerned or can’t change the behaviour, then start declining playdate invitations.
Horne would tell the boy’s family that they had plans, without further explanation. “It’s truthful, even if our plans were to just stay home or clean the house,” says Horne. “I let Wyatt know I was saying no because we had plans—homework, dinner, a movie—important enough to turn down an invitation for.”
These days, she pays closer attention to the initial dynamic between her three kids and their new friends. “I do what I can to encourage healthy friendships and discourage less healthy ones.”
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our January 2017 issue with the headline “Bratty BFF,” p. 55.