Learning

Do other people's kids drive you crazy?

...Or do you secretly wish your children were more like them?

Do you worry about the influence of friendship groups? Does your child have a bestie that you don’t especially warm to? Or are you trying to engineer a friendship because it would work for your child (and you)? Love them or loathe them, you have to learn to live with other people’s kids – for your child’s sake if not your own.

Published

Picture the scene: you are picking your child up from school and she appears hand in hand with a child you just don’t like for some reason. She’s probably a perfectly nice kid, you just don’t warm to her. And now you are faced with the prospect of endless playdates with your child’s new best friend.

It’s perfectly normal not to like some children, just as it is normal to dislike some adults. What you do need to do is to understand your role in this situation. Your job as a parent is not to befriend your children’s friends, but to enable them to make friends with each other. Compare it to a work situation – you don’t need to like your boss to be civil to him and to work well together.

Children are drawn towards naughty kids... And the most popular kids are often those who are the most capable of being the naughtiest!

FEELINGS OF JEALOUSY

Some parents feel unenthusiastic about their children’s friends through simple jealousy. Ella’s mum, Nicola, confesses: ‘It took me some time to realise that I’d taken a dislike to Ella’s friend Poppy simply because she’s such a pretty little thing and by contrast Ella always looks as if she’s been dragged through a hedge backwards. I felt hugely guilty once I realised where I was coming from.’

Perhaps you see your child’s friend as more popular or more intelligent. Whatever the reason, it’s uncomfortable but perfectly natural that at a subconscious level you see this child as a rival and this unleashes your tiger mother instinct! But you can’t justify discouraging the friendship because this is your child’s friend, not yours: all you can do is be civilised and hope that the some of the friend’s good points will rub off on your own child.

WHEN KIDS BEHAVE BADLY

What happens if you find your child is drawn to a child who is badly-behaved or dislikeable? Kaylee found that regular coffee mornings she’d been enjoying with friends became a nightmare when two mums brought their unruly kids and let them run riot.’ One occasion they went into the hostess’s bathroom and emptied all her expensive cosmetics into the bath to make a potion,’ recalls Kaylee. ‘The last straw was in another home where they found some permanent markers and drew patterns on the bedroom wall. Both mums were a bit embarrassed but I felt that they should have taken a firmer tone: using coloured pens on walls is not something we do, ever. Instead, the tone was: ‘You shouldn’t have done it, darling, but what a lovely picture. How beautiful it looks in the bedroom! We engineered all future coffee mornings to happen at times when we knew they weren’t available.’

Research has made a link between between popularity, social dominance and challenging behaviour among children. Children are drawn towards naughty kids, according to the findings. And the most popular kids are often those who are the most capable of being the naughtiest! Some psychologists believe that aggressive behaviour may be interpreted by other kids as a willingness to defy grown-ups, which makes the aggressive child seem independent and older.

If these research findings are accurate, it may well be that banning your child’s friendship is only likely to make it more desirable. Instead, talk to your children about friends-who-are-behaving-badly and ask them how they feel about it. They are probably struggling with it themselves and would welcome the opportunity to talk about what is going on.

Remember your job is not to like your children’s friends, but to help them develop social skills and create friendship networks of their own. Eventually your child will need to take responsibility for his own friendship decisions. Don’t tell him not to be friends with ‘undesirable’ kids, but make it clear you won’t invite them round to play until they learn to behave a little more kindly.

NIGHTMARE PLAY DATES!

Other people’s children can really push your buttons when you get them on your own turf. Ignoring boundaries and your house rules, they tear around the house damaging things, pulling all the toys off the shelves for you to re-sort, upsetting the cat, refusing to sit at the table to eat, and spilling juice all over the sofa. You’re simply itching to give them a big telling-off, but what will the other parents think? What can you do?

First thing to remember is that kids always need to know where they stand, and when boundaries are unclear some kids react by testing to see how far they can go. Most kids are cautious and wait to see what is expected, but the more insecure ones may play up, waiting for you to stop them. It’s kinder to them and easier all round to be very explicit about what is expected.

Don’t confuse correction with punishment. It is absolutely fine to correct other people’s children, but not okay to discipline them. In most cases, a firm word and an explanation of house rules will be all that is necessary. But if this doesn’t work, tell them you will need to call their Mum and send them home – and follow this through if necessary.

Children are bound to be high-spirited on a play date, so don’t expect too much of them. Rather than be stressed by bad table manners, have a picnic outside or go for (non messy) finger food inside. Distract them if play is getting out of hand, or chill out for a while in front of children’s TV. If you find it impossible to control your child’s friend on your own turf, arrange play dates somewhere neutral like the park or local soft-play.

The first question most parents ask when picking up children from a play date is : ‘How has he/she been?’ What do you say if the truth is that the child in question has behaved like a little horror?

First off, it’s helpful if you can feel some empathy for the parents. They probably are well aware that little Lauren is a handful and they are probably dreading your disapproval. They may well be at their wits’ end themselves. But equally they may feel defensive, and criticism is never easy to take. Try to be sympathetic and provide a listening ear. If you have suggestions, offer them in a neutral way: ‘My Johnny used to do x so we found y helped…’ If they realise you are sympathetic and not judgemental, they may feel able to be more honest with you.

If you know the visiting child is likely to be difficult for a specific reason (perhaps the child has ADHD or has been having a challenging time at home) you could ask: ‘What should I do if the kids start misbehaving? What is your strategy?’ But you will need to be sure the right opportunity arises as some parents may feel very defensive.

Don’t confuse correction with punishment. It is absolutely fine to correct other people’s children, but not okay to discipline them.

SOCIAL ENGINEERING

Why is it so often the case that your children don’t seem to be particularly friendly with your best friend’s kids, insisting instead on making friends with children you don’t particularly like, whose parents you don’t have much in common with?

What you need to establish here is that you respect each other’s needs. Your kids can have their friends to play as long as they are also prepared to play in a friendly fashion with your friends’ children. You can’t dictate who your children do and don’t like, but they do need to learn to get on with lots of people. Rather than trying to engineer friendships, give your children the skills they need to be sociable and be prepared to give and take. Who knows? They might decide that the friends you choose are ones they prefer too – but if they don’t, try to be grown up about it!

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