What to do when questionable pals appear
Trying to perfect your child’s peer group may stunt skill building
When I was a young(ish) mother, I once complained to a psychologist about my son having an undesirable friend. This kid was trouble: Extremely impulsive, quick to anger, and I didn’t find him kind.
The psychologist came as close as shrinks ever come to giving me hell.
She said I was to desist immediately from trying to control my son’s friendships because it would backfire in all kinds of ways.
In this case, because he liked this totally unsuitable friend, I would, she said, “drive him into his arms” if I spoke negatively about the friend.
She also said that even with kids he didn’t like or who weren’t nice to him, if I tried to keep them away from him, it would be bad because I would then be telegraphing to my son that I didn’t have faith in his ability to cope with adversity.
Am I the only mom who’s a control freak? I think not. We obviously only want the best for our kids, and we worry when there are yucky kids in their world.
But instead of micro-managing for perfection in their world, if we teach them to manage adversity, we’ve given them a “lifelong learnable.”
Kids who might be labeled “bad” or “undesirable” tend to be the irritating kids. This is the kid with poor social skills, maybe a learning disability and/or ADD/ADHD. Maybe this kid is physically very awkward or, for whatever reason, is not socially attractive.
We all know who these kids are. Some of them are our kids. We also dislike the kids with poor anger management skills, who lose their temper and then feel sorry afterwards.
Genuine and chronic cruelty is different from poor anger management: Kids who repeatedly behave cruelly are bullying, and as adults we bear responsibility for stopping bullying. Most kid misbehaviour is not bullying.
But as parents we tend to want misbehaving kids weeded out of any group our child belongs to. And that’s the problem!
What do we communicate (between the lines) to our children if we complain, to the camp director, the school principal, the hockey coach, the other parents, about the annoying or difficult child in the group?
The message is that perfection is 1) attainable and 2) desirable. The message is that life is controllable and ought to be controlled. The message is that our child isn’t (and doesn’t have to learn to be) tolerant of differences and resourceful. The message is that our child doesn’t have to learn how to get along with irritating or difficult people or to speak up and advocate for him/herself.
Bullying is NEVER okay, but before we assume that someone is a bully, we do need to give them a fair chance — and during that time there may be an opportunity for our kids to practice speaking up, getting help from a grown-up, and advocating for themselves. What fantastic life skills to learn when you’re young!
Think about the irritating kids: The attitude that we have (and exhibit, whether we want to or not) towards difficult or less functional kids, is so important. As we are fond of saying (ad nauseam) to camp staff: They know what we show.
Which means that when we try to get our kids into cabins or classrooms or sports teams without that challenging child, we’re messaging loud and clear.
And then how will our kids ever learn to live with differences? How will they do at university, at work, in their own families, when all is not smooth sailing interpersonally?
Childhood is a laboratory for life. It’s their opportunity to learn to celebrate and be okay with differences.
Your child will never have the “perfect” classroom or cabin or friendship group — or family! — but instead the growth that comes from learning patience and tolerance, from accepting people who are different, from learning to speak up and ask for help when someone isn’t respectful, from gaining the resilience and resourcefulness that grow from learning to cope with these experiences.
That’s better than perfection, because it’s real life.