Can YOU Choose Your Kids Friends?

When my daughter was 5, she made friends one afternoon with another little girl at the beach where we went for swimming lessons. The two girls were having such a good It, me that the mother invited Audrey to come home with them for lunch, and I said yes.

This is not good.

This is not good.

Two hours later, when I picked up Audrey at her new friend’s house, I had to step over garbage on the porch, and though it was a beautiful summer I found the girls in the living room, blankly watching a game show. The mother was busy yelling at an older child, while the father was yelling at the mother.

I said our good-byes and buckled Audrey into her seat. Normally a sunny, easygoing child, she was whiny all the way home. Tammy got to have her cars pierced, she told me. Tammy’s mother let them have SpaghettiOs as often as they wanted. Tammy was allowed to watch ‘IN all the time. I said that might be fine with Tammy’s mother, but It wasn’t fine with me.

“You’re a dummy,” she said-the first time I’d ever heard her use the word. “And you know something else? Tammy doesn’t have to wear a seat belt, either.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the first episode–and hardly the last–in which I’d be confronted with the dilemma that arises when Your child chooses a friend you don’t approve of. You’re left to reconcile your desire for your child’s happiness with your concern for her moral, emotional, or even physical well-being. What do you do?

When a child is young, parents control her universe. If there arc foods you don’t want her to cat, places you don’t want her to go, words you don’t want her to hear, you simply keep her away. And that’s exactly what I did with Audrey, explaining why she wouldn’t be seeing Tammy again. But as a child expands her social circle, she’s exposed to other people’s values and habits, which may be very different from Your own. And while you Would like to think your child will just say no to behavior You’ve taught her is wrong, that may be too much to ask from a youngster who’s trying to be accepted by her peers. So it falls to you to decide when it may be necessary to intervene.

As my own experience shows, often it isn’t the friend who presents a problem, but his parents. “Actually, I like Robert, and when he comes over to our house for short periods, everything usually goes well,” says Linda S. of St. Petersburg, FL, mother of 10-year-old Jason. “But when Jason used to go to Robert’s house, the boys had so little Supervision they’d do things like make prank calls and throw fireworks at passing cars. My son participated, but I think it scared him, too, and that’s why lie told me what they’d done. Then I heard that Robert’s father had an unlocked closet full of guns. That was it. No more visits.”

Sometimes, a child is actually looking for his parent to step in and say no. “The cliche is that if you forbid a child, he’ll rebel, but in my experience that’s not the whole story,” says Anthony Wolfe, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Longmeadow, MA. Jackie R., a single mother and social worker in Keene, NH, remembers a boy in her neighborhood who played with her son, Adam, when they were both 7. “Ben was rude and out of control,” she says. “At first, I tried to set limits. But Ben wasn’t able to abide by them, and Adam was too young to control Ben’s behavior. Finally, I decided Ben Couldn’t conic over anymore. Adam was sad, but I think he felt a measure of relief, too, knowing that I was in control of a situation he couldn’t handle.”

One of the best ways to have more control over your child’s friendships is to monitor them. “Let Your child invite his friends home,” advises Judy Blume, bestselling author of 21 books for young readers, and the mother of two grown children. “Use the chance to get to know the friend. Find out what it is your child likes about that person.”

If You know Your young guest lives by rules different from your own, tell him at the beginning of the visit what behavior you expect. You might say, “In our family, we have to pick LIP the toys after we’re done playing.” If the friend complains to you or your child, remember that it’s not your job to be popular. It’s your responsibility to maintain the standards you’ve set for your family.

Of course, a parent can’t keep such close tabs on older kids, partly because they can go places on their own. But You might have a rule that friends aren’t allowed over when you’re not home, or that Your child isn’t to visit a friend’s house unless an adult is around. Even so, another family’s standards may he different from yours, and You can’t be your teen’s 24-hour-a-day police officer (or you may meet with resentment, even defiance). That’s why it’s essential to let your child know where you stand on values that are important to you.

By all means, give your child room to choose his friends, says Wolfe, but if You have a strong opinion about some aspect of a friend’s behavior, say so. “Don’t yell at your child when he starts rolling his eyes, and don’t demand that he respond. But let him know, in a clear anti nonadversarial manner, what you disapprove of.”

I felt I had to speak Lip, for instance, when one of my 16-year-old son’s friends started talking about how, when he got married someday, his wife Would “stay barefoot and pregnant.” I knew I might embarrass my son, but to say nothing would have sent the message that I found that kind of remark acceptable.

Many mothers let their teenage daughters know they don’t want them to he sexually active. “When Debbie was thirteen, she told me she was the only virgin in her crowd of girls,” says 46-year-old divorce(] mother Chris W., an electrologist in Austin, TX “I figured it was good she was telling me. But I know she felt like there was something wrong with her. So I tried to reinforce her self-esteem by letting tier know how much I admired tier strength. Eventually, when a Couple Of her friends’ boyfriends dropped them, and they got really hurt, I think she felt good about waiting.”

While you’re trying to instill in her the good judgment and self-control to make wise choices, You may occasionally decide it’s best to allow Your child some leeway.

“Several years ago, my daughter wanted to go to a Grateful Dead concert in northern Vermont with a carload of kids,” says Vicki T., a Weston, CT, insurance adjuster who remembered going to a Grateful Dead concert herself when she was her daughter’s age-and how easy it was to find marijuana there. Uncomfortable with the fact that the other kids’ parents had given their okay without setting any guidelines, she laid down her own. “Theresa was seventeen,” Vicki says. “If we’d kept her home, she would have been resentful. So we decided to let her go, but only on the condition that she follow Our rules. I took the name and phone number of the friend the kids were staying with. We told Theresa she had to call us when she got to the concert and as soon as she got back to her friend’s house–and she did.” Because she intervened, but also showed her willingness to trust, Vicki believes her daughter respected her all the more.

Vicki’s experience in letting her daughter attend the concert–despite her initial alarm at the shaggy dreadlocks of one boy in the group and the ripped T-shirt of a girlfriend–points up one of the most common areas of conflict between parents and adolescents: clothes. Sooner or later, many parents have to deal with their kid dressing bizarrely because his friends do. That doesn’t mean they should be alarmed, says Wolfe. “Ask yourself, `I lave I seen any behavior that troubles me?’ as opposed to saying, `I don’t like the way lie or his friends look.’ Because kids with grunge clothing can still be very good, sweet kids.”

But while a teenager’s need to try Out new personas through strange styles is an appropriate developmental stage, “It’s also understandable that not all those personas will be acceptable to his parents,” says Phyllis Cohen, professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study (enter. So, again, clarify for Yourself what your limits are and communicate them to your child.

Sometimes, danger signals are a lot more Subtle than strange clothes, and parents should be alert to these too. Sandra A., a massage therapist in Naples, FL, recently discovered her 14-year-old daughter had been shoplifting for more than a year. “It started when we moved after my divorce last year,” Sandra says. “She made friends with a girl next door in our condo development. Andrea, it turned out, had been stealing from stores since she was twelve. My daughter was feeling so insecure after the move that she attached herself to this girl and went along with whatever she said and did.”

Although Sandra had heard from neighbors that Andrea was had news, she was reluctant to sever her daughter’s new friendship because she felt guilty about making her move away from her old neighborhood and friends. Instead, it took a frightening and embarrassing arrest for stealing two pairs of earrings at a mail to teach the girl the cost of being friends with a shoplifter. “Sometimes You just have to pull the plug on a friendship,” says Sandra. She still lets the girls see each other, but she helped her daughter find a job Volunteering at a Goodwill store and found a Studio where she could get back to the jazz dancing she’d enjoyed before the move. Looking back, Sandra wishes she’d been quicker to act.

Indeed, the parental desire to make everything all right can lead to a common mistake: identifying too closely with the child’s Situation. “I was uneasy when my nine-year-old daughter made friends with a girl who was always winning prizes and getting elected to student council,” says one mother, who remembered a similar experience of her own and worried that her child would forever stand in this girl’s shadow. “Gradually, though, I came to see that these two girls had a mutually Supportive relationship. I’d once been friends with a girl who treated me like her spear-carrier. But my daughter’s relationship wasn’t unhealthy in that way. It just Pushed some old buttons for me.”

The bottom line on whether or not to intervene In a child’s friendship, advises Wolfe, is to answer these questions: Does my child’s friend pose a real danger–is he or she actively encouraging my child to engage in behavior I consider immoral or dangerous? Or does he or she simply have different beliefs from mine and my family’s? And finally, do I trust my child to make his own life decisions?

“The single most powerful determinant I know in assessing the seriousness of a kid’s situation,” Wolfe says, “is whether the child feels hopeful about his life and believes his future is good. If the answer is yes, then the most positive motivator keeping him from doing anything really dangerous or destructive comes from his Unwillingness to mess Lip his life. If not, that’s when You need to worry–and possibly call in professional help.

“If you do your job well,” he adds, “your children arc highly unlikely to be lost to you forever. Making friendships that challenge their parents is one way for adolescents to assert their independence. Once that’s firmly established, you get your great kid back again.”

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