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Reality Check: Bad Seed, Best Friend

Q  Our mild-mannered 3-year-old is friends with a wild child who talks back, excludes other kids, and ignores rules. How can we protect our daughter from this bad influence?
A Your daughter isn't in danger of catching a permanent bad attitude from her buddy. If they remained constant companions for the next ten years, the wayward friend never grew out of her rebel ways, and your daughter never learned to think or act for herself, you might have something to worry about. But that's a lot of "ifs." Preschooler friendships are notoriously fleeting, and the risky ones, though exciting for a while, tend to burn themselves out sooner than later. Plus, 3-year-olds have a very simplistic idea of what being a friend is all about. They figure, If we're friends I have to like what she likes and do what she does, even if I know it's not a good idea. Only development and life experience can teach otherwise.

Attempt to determine what your daughter sees in her friend. "Ask her anything from 'What's your favorite thing to play with Janey?' to 'How does it make you feel when she gets in trouble?'" says Kathy Thornburg, Ph.D., director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Missouri-Columbia. If your child wants to experiment with misbehavior but lacks the temperamental moxie to do it alone, "she may be using this other little girl to do it vicariously," says Thornburg.

When Miss Misbehavior plays at your house or in your yard, feel free to enforce your rules. I used to feel awkward disciplining other people's children. Now I think of it as enforcing the laws of a host nation: While you are visiting my tiny republic on East Pleasant Street, if you are mean to others, you will be deported. Remind your daughter of your family's code of conduct and the good reasons behind it, and do so in front of her friend (and also later, after the girl has gone home).

Encourage other relationships, but don't try to forbid this one. And remember: Just as your child can grow out of a nasty stage, so can her friend. Besides, a heart of gold and an important friendship could be hiding behind the naughtiness.

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.