When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
I know it’s kinda wrong for me to say this, but I really hate my kid’s best friend. He’s one of those kids who just whines and whines about every little thing. Take their last playdate, for example: For lunch, I ordered pizza, but this kid wanted chicken fingers and he nearly broke down in tears over the whole thing. He’s eight. Then I decided to let them watch a movie. At first we settled on Zootopia, but then the friend changes his mind and decides he wants to watch Finding Dory instead. Except I don’t have Finding Dory and I’m not going to spend $3 to rent it just to shut him up when I’d rather send his annoying butt home!
My real gripe, though, is this: I notice that whenever he comes over for a few hours, my son starts to acquire some of his buddy’s most irritating traits. He’ll start to disagree with me more, and he’ll pout over stupid things when normally he’s a pretty chill kid. If it’s this pronounced now, what do I do about the eventual friends of my son that aren’t simply annoying, but that may be a serious bad influence over him? And while I’m at it, are there any good solutions for my current bad friend problem?
Basically, what do I do if I hate my kid’s best friend?
The Expert Advice
Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: If our kid is doing stuff we don’t like, it’s easy to blame the other kid. People often feel that their kid couldn’t possibly do anything wrong, so it has to be that other child who is to blame, when actually sometimes it’s hard to tell.
I’d encourage parents to think about why they don’t like this other child. Is it that you just find their personality annoying, or maybe you don’t like this kid’s parents, or maybe you don’t like how your child acts around them? It’s important to try to recognize your own bias, because sometimes our children are better people than we are and they see the good in people that we may not. So I’d encourage parents to make an honest attempt to get to know that child and understand them. Maybe it’s their family life that’s in turmoil or maybe they just made a bad first impression on you. Parents often don’t take the time to get to know these children, and they judge them based on their own bias. But by doing so, all they’re doing is teaching their child to judge people in the same way.
If you do that though and you still feel that this other child is sending your kid down a path you don’t want them to go, I recommend making things about the behavior of your child. The more you forbid friendships, the more kids are attracted to that friend, and then you also create a risk that your child may not be honest with you about hanging out with this kid. Instead, have an open conversation about your child’s behavior. For example, say something like, “I notice when you’re with so-and-so, you don’t follow the rules very well.” Or: “When you’re with them, you’re not very kind.” Make it about how your child acts rather than blame that other kid.
Now, your child may not say much to those questions, but what you’re doing is letting them own their behavior. From there, you can set limits. So, they can hang out with that friend, but if they arrive home late, then they can’t go out with them next time. You set ground rules around the behaviors of your child and restrict the activities around that other kid. By making it about the behaviors, you can approach it like any other discipline, and you’re empowering your child to make the right choices and hopefully they’ll recognize that this friend is pushing them to do things that are getting them into trouble — then they’ll make their own choice about the friendship.
Lennie, father of two and a high school principal: With my own kids, I’m pretty blessed. We got them into programs like music and soccer and the kids that they’re friends with are good kids. It was very intentional that I got them involved in those programs because, over my career, I’d noticed that the kids in those programs had some of the highest averages in the school. This was also true of a few other programs like drama, track and swimming, so I guided my kids onto those paths very early on in elementary school.
Once it happens though that a kid befriends a bad influence, it becomes very difficult to separate them. If you tell a kid not to hang out with someone, they’re just going to do it more. Like in the high school, if I tell a kid that they’re hanging with the wrong crowd or making bad decisions, it’s very difficult in the moment to get them to recognize that. You can talk to the kid about who they choose as friends, and once in a great while you’ll find a kid who will listen. More often though, the kid will be so defensive that they’ll take it personally when you’re speaking bad about their friends.
I get so many parents who come to me for advice about how to control their kid, but by the time they’re in high school, they’ve kind of lost that control and that’s a hard thing to accept. Parents have to talk to their kids young about the friends they choose. If they’re 15 or 16 and a parent hasn’t taken those interventions when they were five or six, it’s not going to be very effective for a teen.
Ari Yares, licensed psychologist: When dealing with someone who gets under your skin, I recommend taking a lot of deep breaths. Oftentimes you can’t get away with completely ignoring someone, either because it’s rude, or in the case of a child, they need your supervision. So instead of trying to ignore them, what you’re trying to do is lessen the impact they’re having on you. When I talk to people about this, I let them know that they have to control their own emotional reaction because oftentimes how we react is what gets us into trouble.
To help control your emotions, take a moment to be sure you’re in control of your breathing and be mindful of your body. Doing so can have a tremendous impact on your emotional wellbeing, and it will allow you to think about how you want to react. After you do take that moment and your stress response is calmed down, you can proceed to interact with this person. Sometimes people are pushing our buttons so hard that we’re not pausing to think. We’re simply reacting, and then we make the situation worse. Don’t allow them to have this kind of control over you.
Ray, father of two: You get a feel for people, and there were a few times when my son was growing up that I felt that his friends were dumbing him down. Maybe this isn’t right to say, but some of his friends didn’t seem too bright and I didn’t want my son to sink down to their level, so I knew I had to do something.
By simply telling him to stay away from them, I knew it would only drive him to them more. The couple of times I tried that, I heard stuff like, “Oh, come on, they’re my best buddies!” But they weren’t his best buddies or even really all that good of friends to him. Instead, I just made my son’s life busier than normal so that he wouldn’t have as much opportunity to hang out with those kids. Like I’d tell him we have to take care of this chore today, or that we had to make an unexpected trip to grandma’s house, whatever I could do to keep him occupied.
They’d still hang out sometimes, and when they did, I mostly had them over at my house so I could keep an eye on things. But by keeping my son’s life busier, he had fewer opportunities to be around them. Eventually what happened was, because my son was unavailable, those friendships faded away, which is what happens when people aren’t really your friends to begin with.
Abby, a mother of one who used to be a bad influence: When I was younger I was not a good influence on some of my friends, in particular to my friend Harmony, whose parents ended up telling her that she couldn’t talk to me anymore. During our friendship I influenced Harmony to go to parties and sneak out during spring break and to try drugs with me. Her parents didn’t know about much about this stuff but they did find out about the $600 phone bill I racked up when I stayed with them.
After the phone bill, Harmony’s parents forbid her from talking to me and I remember at the time being angry with them. I felt that Harmony should be my friend no matter what, yet she was also mad at me because I’d betrayed her trust. I was just a teenager and I wasn’t talking to either of my parents, so Harmony’s parents were forced to pay the bill. I always told myself that I’d pay her back as soon as I had a good job and after about a decade I did exactly that. I paid her back and apologized for what I’d done.
Since then we’ve talked on the phone and reconnected on Facebook. She lives far away so we aren’t very close, but to be honest, even if she lived closer, I don’t know how tight we’d be. Harmony, as well as other friends from that period in my life, have often remarked upon what a different person I am now than I was then. Though sometimes they’ll say, “Remember when…,” and it makes me very uncomfortable because I’m not that person anymore. I’m not stuck there and I don’t think those times were fun. I was a very lost young woman who didn’t have anyone, and those aren’t fond memories.
Now, as a parent, if my daughter were friends with someone like me back then, I’d tell her to get away from them. I realize now that Harmony’s parents had every right to do what they did. On the other hand, I also think about how Harmony made a choice to be friends with me and to do the things that she did. No, I wasn’t a good influence, but she made those choices. You always hear about these kinds of friendships from the perspective of the parent who says, “This kid is bringing my kid down,” but what is their child getting from this friendship? What is it that’s missing at home or in their lives that they’re making these choices?