When I was in elementary school, a neighbor kid used to come by all the time. I never understood that dark expression on my mother's face when she'd see him skipping toward the house, or the look of relief that washed over her later when little Richie would finally depart.
"What do you mean, overstay his welcome?" we kids would ask. "He was only here for eleven hours."
I understand now. Oh yes, I understand.
To the long list of Things That Nobody Told Us Before We Had Kids, we can now add the problem of what happens when your children have friends who -- let's be honest -- suck.
Janice French, who's raising two kids in Phoenix, says, "I feel really sad when I don't like a child. And a little disgusted. I try to figure out why. Usually it's their treatment of other children that gets me because I was picked on as a child and it creates raw emotions when I see kids being mean and hateful to other kids."
No one likes to dislike kids, but we usually have reasons for our feelings: Some kids say mean things. Some can and will break anything smaller than a couch. Some kids' vocabularies start and end in the toilet. Others get into power plays, excluding your child just for kicks. And some, without doing anything especially horrific, manage to... make... your... life... miserable. They're soul vampires, and the only thing keeping you from driving a stake into their undead hearts is what people would say afterward at PTA meetings.
It gets trickier as our children get older. Their relationships expand from the playground to the hazy world of text messages and e-mail -- technology that's no longer just for teens. It's hard to know what we're in for, and just how to handle the potholes.
This is why, as unpleasant as it can feel, it's actually good to encounter kids who aren't your cup of tea when your children are in elementary school. You get practice in dealing with it -- deciding when to ignore it, when to intervene, and when to end the relationship entirely.
Judy Hsiao* is a mom of two in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her older son is 8, and over the years she's seen things that could curl spaghetti. "Victor has had friends who were rude, dirty, mean, disrespectful, gluttonous, and gross," she says.
But one boy constantly provoked her husband with his bad behavior, once going so far as to chuck a bottle at a car as Hsiao's husband and son were walking home from school with him. Her son copied the move, and her husband scolded both boys. While Hsiao's son was ashamed, the other boy apparently decided he'd act out even more.
This revealed some differences of opinion between Hsiao and her husband, who handles most of the playdates. She'd rather not discipline other people's children. He's more of the "it takes a village" school. While she admires her husband's way with kids, she ultimately decided her son couldn't play with such a bad-news buddy, no matter how much the other parents begged for get-togethers.
Rather than confront the other parents directly, Hsiao and her husband "practiced avoidance," simply saying their son wasn't available. And they set up other playdates for Victor, who was young enough that he didn't really notice.
Hsiao's priorities were her son and his needs. She says her son is the kind of kid who wants to please the people around him, and he'd wind up in trouble if he tried to please someone slouching toward delinquency.
"It was a disaster waiting to happen," she says.
Jenna Robinson* knows all about brewing disasters. The Grand Junction, CO, mother thought she'd found a dream playmate in the neighborhood. She was the same age as Robinson's 9-year-old daughter. Then they took the girl along to a baseball game, where they learned during the musical interludes that the child was a budding dancer -- only more Dirty Dancing than Dancing With the Stars.
"She was like someone in an R-rated music video," Robinson says. Others agreed. One of Robinson's friends was at the game -- a parole officer, she took one look at the child and said, "That girl is trouble."
Robinson didn't sever ties -- in part because she thought her own family might be a good influence. But she had to ask the girl to tone it down at least once per playdate (she'd describe scenes from age-inappropriate movies in great detail, for one) and was, frankly, relieved when the family moved away. "My daughter doesn't seem to miss her at all," she says.
Sometimes, a little pre-playdate intervention can make you feel calmer about the bad influence on her way over to your house. Martha Green's* 8-year-old daughter, Rachel, has a very active, loud friend with a potty mouth. She's a nice girl, but she drives Green nuts, especially when Rachel starts copying her friend. Green has learned to remind her daughter to stay calm before the kids get together and to enlist her help in reining in her wild and crazy friend. When the girls are at the friend's house, though, she lets it go: She can't control every situation, after all.
"I have one child for a reason," she says. "I simply don't have the patience for more than one child in my house at a time. I can probably tolerate way less kid mayhem than most parents, which makes me weird, but it is what it is."
Can't Put Your Finger On It?
In addition to the neighborhood pole-dancer, Robinson has also endured visits from a soul vampire. "She was polite, not overly loud or obnoxious or anything. But somehow she wore us down, and at the end of the playdate, we were always mentally exhausted," she says.
It was little manipulative things that did it, like wanting the lights on at a sleepover when other kids wanted them off, making herself just a little too much at home, and inviting herself over a lot. Those tough-to-pin-down annoyances can be the hardest to take because they seem petty. They're not.
Eventually, the family shortened playdates with this girl, banned sleepovers, and focused instead on cultivating friendships with more promising pals. They were often "booked" when she asked to play.
Heather Whitfield, a San Francisco mom of two, recalls one infamous road trip to a lighthouse with her kids, Sam, 8, and Olivia, 11. They'd taken one of Sam's friends along, and he yammered on senselessly like a robot whose batteries were on the fritz.
"We hadn't gotten two miles before I could see that Olivia was about to explode," Whitfield says. "Sam hit his limit shortly after that. Mine came about six miles into the twenty-mile trip."
The "let's see who can be quiet longest" game didn't work. The kid talked all the way to the lighthouse -- and back. Relief came only when they dropped him off. He invited Sam in, and got a big fat "NO!" for an answer.
Eventually, the boys stopped spending time together after a couple of playdates at which they just didn't click. Whitfield, who likes the kid's parents, was disappointed. It would have been nice to have a friend for her son nearby. But proximity couldn't overcome the personality mismatch. Fortunately, these problem friendships sometimes fade away without any need for parental intervention.
Just Plain Mean
Belinda Carter*, a mother of two in Santa Cruz, CA, still hasn't forgotten the kindergarten classmate who was visibly amused by her daughter's mild speech impediment.
"The girl would mimic Clare and laugh," Carter says. "I spoke to the friend several times, really kindly. First, I tried the 'la-la-la, everyone is different' approach. The next time, I trotted out the old 'lots of people say things in their own way.' Finally, I resorted to snapping, 'Teasing doesn't make friends feel good!'?"
Ultimately, the snapping worked, even though it horrified Carter to hear her voice soaring into a register best heard by dogs. The girl never teased Clare again, at least not in Carter's earshot.
It's not always this easy, though. Andrea Thomas*, a Seattle mom, is watching the collapse of a bond between her 8-year-old daughter, Molly, and a neighborhood kid, who have been friends since they both were 3.
Molly's playmate, Sabrina, can make life hard: She wants to call all the shots when the girls are together. Sometimes, seeming to know it'll upset Molly -- who's an only child -- Sabrina will say she just wants to be alone with her sisters. Other times, she'll flat-out refuse to play. And once while Thomas was walking Molly, Sabrina, and another child home from school, Sabrina whispered into the other friend's ear the entire time without saying a word to Molly. All this added up to make Molly feel like dirt.
"It's really hard when you see your kid go out of the house skipping down the street, only to be rejected for the 400th time," she says. "Her face is like a thundercloud. Sometimes, she'll be almost quivering, and tears will be leaking out."
To make matters more complicated, the girl's parents are good friends with Thomas and her husband -- good friends with wildly different parenting philosophies. "They're Darwinian," Thomas says. "They just want the kids to work it out themselves."
Thomas has little hope of that happening, and she's had a series of tough talks with Molly. She's asked her to think about other kids who might be more fun to play with, and she's had to tell Molly that Sabrina just isn't someone who can be counted on as a friend. The death of a friendship is a tough lesson for anyone, let alone an 8-year-old, but parents sometimes have to help their kids come to terms with this sort of loss.
When we have to witness hard times like these, it's no wonder some of us want to intervene a little more directly. If your child's been repeatedly hurt by a "friend," you may decide to call the other parents. You have to be prepared for them to have the attitude Thomas's friends do, but your best hope for getting them on board is to ask for help, not accuse them of raising a monster. You could say that since the last couple of playdates were so rough (this might be news to them), you were thinking of talking to your child about what it means to be a good friend. Would they do the same?
Because that may or may not get you anywhere, the most important thing to focus on is maintaining control in your own home. Heather Whitfield, the San Francisco mom of the everlasting road trip, had a birthday party for 11-year-old Olivia. One of the kids arrived late with a problem to discuss, so she dragged all the girls into Olivia's bedroom. Whitfield enticed them back out after a while with a snack, but only half the kids emerged. This is when she learned that the girls in the bedroom were gossiping in such a way that some other kids felt uncomfortable.
So she had to put her hands on her hips and assert mom authority to end the toxic rap session. The gossip girl decided she wanted to go home early. "After she left, all the girls had fun," Whitfield says.
The hardest part of not liking your kids' friends, though, may be when it really is just your problem. If your child's happy, and you're the only one negatively affected, you might just need to back off and let the children be friends.
As moms, it's our job to keep perspective on the situation and accept these tricky friendships (and annoying kids!) as part of parenting. As Judy Hsiao says, "I don't like all adults -- so why would I like all children?"
Martha Brockenbrough wrote "Mad at Dad" for Parenting's February issue.