When kids clash

What to do when your kids don't get along with your friend's kids.

Sherri Hoover and her best friend enjoy shopping and hanging out together, and their husbands often go golfing together, but joint family dinners and movie nights are a challenge. “We don’t get together as often as we’d like,” admits Hoover, “because the kids clash.”

Hoover’s son Nolan is a tentative, somewhat shy seven-year-old. Her friend’s six-year-old couldn’t be more opposite: outgoing, loud, even brash, and Nolan isn’t comfortable with his style. Nolan will say, “Do we have to have them over again? Can’t you take me to Grandma’s?”

We often expect our kids will get along with our friend’s kids. But that’s not always the case, says child and family therapist Sara Dimerman, the author of Am I a Normal Parent?

Don’t force it

First, don’t insist that the kids play together, says Dimerman. During the early school-age years, children are beginning to become more discriminating about their friends, tending to choose buddies who have similar temperaments and interests, and they may show a preference for peers of the same gender. It’s important to respect and acknowledge your children’s choices regarding playmates.
Be honest

Then, talk honestly with your friends about the situation. “We didn’t beat around the bush,” says Hoover. “The other mom and I have talked about how my son gets uncomfortable around her son, and that it’s a disaster when we go to their house.”

Not all parents may be able to handle that conversation with such grace. “Choose your words carefully and be as tactful as possible,” advises Dimer­man. You might talk about different personalities or play styles, or point to different sexes as being the reason. “Say something like ‘My children are at an age when I don’t choose who they should be friends with — any more than I would want them to choose my friends. So it’s a little awkward when we all get together because, let’s face it, your boys love basketball and my girls like to dress up.’”

If your friends are good friends, they’ll understand and will appreciate your honesty. Then you can move on to figuring out what might work.
Find what works for you

For Hoover’s gang, making sure the boys can be outside is key. “If they’re inside, it turns into a disaster because they don’t like the same games or movies. I’ve actually called my friend and said, ‘It’s raining. Can we do this next week?’ But we all went camping and it was great. The boys could swim and play in the park, and they were good with that.”

Parents can also take the long view, recognizing that there are important lessons in this for kids to learn. It’s a fact of life that you’re not going to become great pals with everyone you meet — but with support, kids can learn to treat people they’re not that keen on with respect and kindness.

Ways to help

“But I hardly know them”

It can be difficult for children to strike up a rapport with kids they don’t see often. A little planning can help make the get-together a good experience:

• Don’t force it. Rather than shooing the children out of the room, make it clear that they’re welcome to come and go as they wish among the adults.
• Try an activity that adults and children can play together — a round of Pictionary or a badminton match in the backyard.
• Bring along an activity to share with the other children. For example, you might bring ingredients for the children to make a nice dessert together.