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Ask Dr. Sears: A Bad Role Model?

Q. My 3-year-old daughter loves to play with our neighbor's daughter, who is 5. The problem is, this child has been teaching my daughter bad words and plays entirely too rough. I've even heard her say to her own mother, "Shut up, mommy." Should I break off my little girl's friendship with this girl so she doesn't start acting like her?

A. In the preschool years, a child is searching for the social norm. She's wondering "How should I act?" and "How should I talk?" She's particularly vulnerable to the influence of older peers, especially when those older friends have habits contrary to the principles you teach her at home. Your daughter's exposure to her neighbor's language and behavior is likely to make her confused about what is and isn't acceptable. Here are some tips for dealing with this situation:

Use the "we" principle. Take advantage of your daughter's relationship with her neighbor to reinforce the language and habits you want your child to learn. When you hear her older friend using unacceptable language, take your daughter aside and say, "We don't talk like that in our home." If her friend is being disrespectful to her mother, again say, "We don't talk to Mommy like that. We talk to Mommy using the same nice voice that Mommy uses with you."

Talk to the other child. In the presence of your child, talk to her friend about how you expect her to act around your daughter. Also, have a talk with her alone. Tell her that because she is older and your daughter looks up to her so much, you want her to teach your daughter kind words and gentle play. One of the most important values you want to impress on her is empathy. Frequently posing the question, "How would you feel if ¿" is a great way to do this. When you see this older child playing roughly with your daughter, take her aside and say, "How would you feel if somebody bigger than you played rough with you?"

Encourage healthier models as friends. Although it's important to let your child choose her own friends, your job as a parent is to monitor those friendships. You want to nurture relationships with children who positively influence your daughter's character, and discourage those that pull it down. You also want to surround your child with friends and families that model the same values you teach in your home. That way, your child gets a double dose of healthy morals. There are those who disagree with this approach, insisting that it's important to expose a child to the real world so that she learns many different value systems. In my 35 years of watching children develop, I have never seen this method work. It's like sending a ship out to sea without a chart or a rudder to guide it. Exposing young children to too many value systems when they are very young simply confuses them. Instilling your own familial values in your child is the foundation that's needed to prepare her for the real world.