Care and Feeding

Our 11-Year-Old Neighbor Is Mean—but She Also Needs Our Help

How do I set boundaries while still being kind to a child in need?

Photo illustration of a girl facing away, holding one wrist with her other hand behind her back.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Pepelasev on Unsplash.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter has a friend I’ll call Rebecca. Rebecca has been a problem for us for years—in third grade she routinely had my daughter in tears with socially aggressive behavior. Now they are in sixth grade, and since they live on neighboring streets, they often walk home together from the bus stop. Rebecca still is often cruel to my daughter, and I’ve been working with my daughter on things to say and do in response. At her age, I feel she needs to start to stand up for herself, and she’s tentatively beginning to do so.

However, I also have a 9-year-old son, and when Rebecca is over, she can be cruel to him as well, being rough with him and then mocking him for crying. I have told my daughter she cannot have Rebecca over after school because of this, but she can’t or won’t draw a hard line.

However, every time I see Rebecca, I don’t see the kid who’s hurting my children. I see an 11-year-old girl who’s had trouble making and keeping friends her whole life, whose mom works long and irregular hours, and whose dad isn’t there day to day. I have a really hard time looking at this girl and saying, “You’re not welcome in my house.” What should I do?

—Little Troubles

Dear LT,

Caring for a child and holding them to standards are neither separate nor incompatible things. I would even argue that being clear about what your expectations are is a really great way to show a child that you see her, respect her, and care for her. I was also, for a period of my childhood, that kid that other parents had to teach basic manners to as something of a surrogate family member. And as an adult, I’ve always had a soft spot for kids like this. Probably as a result, I spent 15 years working with kids who were locked up or in foster care and the thing that has become the most obvious to me is that every kid, no matter who they are or how badly they’ve behaved, truly deserves someone to who expects good things from them.

Where a lot of adults fail, especially with kids who are not their own, is that we have a hard time still loving and seeing value in a child that doesn’t behave as we think they should. It’s an outgrowth of a culture that is both hyper-controlling and hyper-self-centered, but lemme stop before I go too far off on this rant. What I’m really trying to say is that I think it’s great that you recognize that Rebecca is out of hand and brings chaos, and also that she is deserving of your time and attention.

It’s perfectly OK to tell Rebecca that she can’t come over and to tell her why. I would recommend setting a specific time period, a week or two, and then giving her another shot. You can make clear in the meantime that you still care for her and value her. Feel free to share snacks and food with her if you see her, ask her how her day was, compliment her on her shoes. Then once she is allowed back in your house make sure she knows what the rules are, and what the grounds are for expulsion.

I’m assuming your daughter is working out her own relationship with this kid since they are still walking home together. And it is important to talk to your son to let him know that you are giving Rebecca chances to improve her behavior, but that you are still going to protect him if he finds himself in over his head. Then invite Rebecca over for a relatively supervised activity. Maybe dinner or lunch on a weekend or a trip to the park or beach. This way you can keep an eye on the situation while giving her a chance to succeed.

The guiding principle here is that kids, even “damaged” ones, don’t necessarily like to ruin relationships and a sense of belonging once they believe these things are possible. Like all things involving love and children, it is not an immediate fix, but it is a long-term strategy for developing and deepening a sense of care and love. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 6 years old and has extreme responses to frustration and disappointment, lashing out physically or verbally when he doesn’t get what he wants. He’s made improvements over the last year or so (the physical reactions have noticeably decreased), but he still screams and throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way, and has trouble interacting with his peers. We’ve seen multiple specialists and are working closely with his teacher at school; however, there’s nothing specific that anyone has diagnosed him with other than being prone to strong emotions.

We are doing our best to promote positive reinforcement instead of punishment, with very mixed results. For example, our morning routine is almost always stressful, with me getting more and more frustrated as I ask him over and over to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush his teeth, etc. I told him that if he could do these things without me asking him to, I would give him 15 extra minutes of screen time (pretty much his only currency other than candy). If he did it after me asking only one time he would get 10 minutes extra, but if I had to ask repeatedly he wouldn’t get any additional screen time. This backfired spectacularly: The first morning, he didn’t get the reward and spent the next 20 minutes screaming and throwing things while I tried to calm him down, explaining he would get another opportunity the next day. How do we use positive reinforcement—without failure to get the reward becoming a punishment?

—Reward or Punishment?

Dear RoP,

My sympathies are with you. I know what it’s like to raise a … what’s the word people are using now … spirited child. No doubt everyone will want to start flinging diagnoses your way, and I’m sure you’ve had just about enough of that. You are on top of your game in terms of seeing doctors, partnering with teachers, seeking counseling. So, what I think you really need is some encouragement and some do’s and don’ts for dealing with a kid like this.

First of all, keep it simple. Your setup for rewards was admirable, but as you no doubt learned, a tiered reward system is a little too complicated. (In general, rewards are harder to manage with emotional children.) What you might do next time is keep the task straightforward and the reward, if you go that route, immediate. “Here’s a list of things to do in the morning: shoes, jacket, backpack, lunch. If you get all these things done by 7, you get a sticker” or whatever.

Another way to keep the system ongoing but the reward immediate, is to set out the tasks and then put a reward, let’s say it’s a dollar, in a jar for every day he gets it right. So by the end of the week he could have $5. If he messes up on Tuesday, he’s still got the dollar from Monday and a chance to get it on Wednesday. This takes some of the all-or-nothing–ness out of it, which it sounds is difficult for your kid to handle.

So do keep it simple, do make the tasks singular and clear (even if that means making them insanely easy), and do let him see the fruits of his work immediately. My big “don’t” is: Don’t take his emotional breakdown too seriously. He responds to noncrisis situations with crisis-size emotions, and that’s very stressful for people who love him. But you can’t go down Crisis Boulevard with him every time. He needs an adult to remain an adult while he’s falling apart. When he’s really suffering you can simply say, “I can see that you’re really upset by the situation, and that makes sense because things didn’t go the way you wanted them to. But let me know once you’re done crying it out and we can continue.” Then you can hug him, let him know that you love him, and let him go. It’s OK to take space, it’s OK to not to match his intensity, and it’s OK to not be able to fix it for him.

One of the most important things we can teach our kids is how to respect their feelings without always believing they must be actionable, for that is a key component of emotional intelligence. It’s OK that he feels hurt; it’s not OK that he’s yelling at everyone. We teach this almost exclusively by how we respond. Accept the reality of his feelings without viewing them as mandatory calls to action and I think you will find that you are well on your way to raising a kind, capable, emotionally intelligent child. And one who can put on a jacket to boot.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 6-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy. When my daughter was younger, I cheated quite a bit on presents at Christmas. When she got gifts throughout the year that she didn’t play with because she was too young, or because she already had too many toys out, I’d put them away and then re-wrap them for Christmas. It’s not an issue of money. I’m a practical person, and it helped control the junk while giving her more joy.

Obviously, she caught on as she got to be older, and we can’t and don’t do that anymore for her. Can I do that for my 2-year-old this year? I want to wrap up 2–3 toys that used to belong to his sister, or toys we rotated out earlier in the year, to give in addition to a few other new presents. Can I do that with a clear conscience without my daughter thinking that I’m short-changing her brother? How terrible is it? And how terrible is it that I think she’d be a great helper in picking out old toys to wrap up for her brother?

—Gift Recycler

Dear GR,

Not only can you do this for your 2-year-old, but you have to. Otherwise how will you explain to his older sister that she got old-ass gifts, but that anything other than store-bought is too lowly for the golden child? You’re cruising for deep-seated resentment if you do anything other than subject him to the exact same re-gifting that she got. It also just happens to be a wonderful idea, especially now that your older one is capable of helping with it. I love the giving spirit, I love the practicality, and as a person who grew up with his dad taking him to thrift stores for toys, I really love the message behind it. Things don’t have to be new to be good. My God, I can only imagine where we’d be if more of us lived by and embodied this ethos.
This is a fantastic family tradition and I salute you! Squeeze everything you can out of it until your kid finally starts to complain.