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.