Care and Feeding

Why Should My Kid Have to Be Friends With a Jerk?

Becky’s mom can’t face up to how mean her daughter is.

A girl sitting alone at lunch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jupiterimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

Becky is in sixth grade and goes to school with my daughter Carrie. Becky doesn’t really have friends. She eats lunch alone most of the time, and she rarely gets invited to parties. Becky’s mom believes that this is the result of mean-girl behavior at school.

It’s true that kids do avoid Becky. But it’s not because she wears the wrong clothes or likes the wrong bands, it’s that Becky is not a nice kid. She has an explosive temper and within seconds goes from a minor disagreement to screaming in some kid’s face about how they’re stupid and useless. She’s just plain mean, and most of her classmates have tired of her behavior.

Carrie has tried to include Becky in her friend group (at school and in scouting, there’s a big emphasis on being kind and making sure that no one eats alone), but after being yelled at almost every lunchtime for a week, Carrie gave up. Her friends were glad, telling her that they weren’t having fun with Becky because they were either waiting for Becky to start screaming at them or sad because Becky had screamed at them.

Becky’s mom has complained to me about how Carrie used to be Becky’s only friend and now she’s friendless again, and how the school is failing Becky because they’re not forcing kids to be friends with her. She doesn’t believe that Becky should have to change her behavior in order to make friends—she thinks that’s sending her a message that she isn’t good enough as she is and that she should emphasize pleasing others over being herself. She wants Carrie to try again, because she thinks Becky will magically improve if only Carrie gives her another chance.

I’m perfectly happy with Carrie ending her attempt at friendship with Becky. I have told Carrie that it’s OK to walk away from a person who is chronically mean to her and that it’s not her job to fix Becky’s problems. But I can’t keep having the same conversations with Becky’s mom! How can I tell her that she can’t expect Carrie to solve Becky’s friendship problems but that they need to deal with Becky’s issues instead?

—Becky Sucks

Dear BS,

Oh, boy. Well, let’s run this one up the flagpole a bit, because this is what teachers are for (in part!). I would ask to sit down with your child’s teacher and essentially lay the situation out (I suspect they will already be quite aware of what’s happening) and ask for help supporting Carrie in maintaining her unbelievably fair boundaries with a girl who is being a total dick to her. There’s also a chance that this conversation will reveal there’s a bit more going on here than meets the eye. This is not to say that your kid is making things up, just that it’s a good opportunity to fact-find a little. More importantly, though, this is an opportunity to say that you’re sure Becky is a good kid, but she’s obviously struggling and you hope her mother will think about getting her some actual help.

You can also say this directly to Becky’s mom, but once having done so, I want you to speak essentially 100 percent less to Becky’s mom going forward. No one can force you to have the same conversation with them more than three times unless they’re paying you. “Carol, I don’t think this is productive anymore. Becky yells at Carrie, and I’m not going to tell Carrie she has to eat lunch with someone who lashes out constantly. I think Becky would benefit from working on her social issues with a trained adult.” Hold the line.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old son is an extreme extrovert. He is into band, choir, soccer, swim team, dance class. He is starring in the school musical this year. He has activities pretty much every school night and would love to add more to his calendar.

I, however, am an anxious introvert who hates having to be a “soccer mom,” “stage mom,” “dance mom,” etc. My worst nightmare is being forced to spend tons of time with the other parents of kids in these activities. They assume that we can all donate $50 for matching uniform jackets. Or they make a decision about which “cool” hotel the whole team should stay at, which is always out of my budget. Or they want us to sign up for 20 hours of volunteer work during the season. Even little things, like sitting and making small talk during practice, can be excruciating. Sometimes I hide in my car.

It’s not their fault—they are stable, middle class, married adults who have plenty of time and resources to devote to these extra parenting duties. But for me, it’s always a huge deal. I already struggle with awkward social situations, so forcing me to confront social hierarchies for every group my kid joins is exhausting and makes me just want to quit.

At the same time, my kiddo is an only child, an only grandchild, has no neighborhood kids to play with … he needs this outlet. I’m proud of him for being so brave and talented. Still, I need to not have to constantly be on alert for a new way to feel inferior. I go to counseling for my own issues, but I need to know: Is there a balance? Does being a good parent mean being constantly uncomfortable and anxious in every single public parenting event ever, sometimes for a full weekend at a time, for the rest of my life?

As I’m writing I’m aware that some of this is my own insecurity about being young, single, poor. But some is legitimately about socializing as a person who enjoys alone time. After I’ve worked a full day, should I have to go deal with snooty people for several more hours every single night? Can I limit it, or is that me being a selfish parent? How many nights a week is required for me to be doing my motherly duty?

—This Is Exhausting!

Dear TIE,

I would hack and burn my way out of these obligations whenever possible. Only one woman could handle doing all this nonsense, and that woman is Reese Witherspoon. If you are not Reese Witherspoon, you have my permission to sit down with your 12-year-old and ask him to rank his activities in order of his enthusiasm for them.

This is a two-step cull. The first step is to tell him that you have only so much time and money (there is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, about making your kids aware that money is not an infinite resource), and it’s not possible for you to support him in doing an unlimited number of extracurriculars and activities. Sit down and think about which ones are the most expensive/taxing/exhausting for you while he thinks about which ones are the most energizing/enjoyable/important for him, and talk together about which ones to cut. This is good for him! You are not asking him to do something unreasonable.

The second step is to begin coolly refusing to do optional nonsense associated with the smaller list of activities he truly wants to do. “That’s not in my budget” is a perfectly acceptable sentence, as is “that simply won’t be possible” when you are asked to spend your weekend making origami cranes shoulder to shoulder with other parents. You also don’t have to be as involved in the activities of your 12-year-old, to be honest. It’s OK to just drop him off and pick him up. This is your life too! You have every right to try to make it enjoyable, or at least survivable.

Be strong, my sister. I support you.

• If you missed Wednesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

My father sexually abused me when I was a child. He denies it, and my mother believes him (as does the rest of my family, as far as I know). I’m happy to say I’ve done a lot of therapy and have good friends and my life is now great.

Meanwhile, I have two nieces. When they were small, I discovered my brother and sister-in-law were leaving them to stay the night at my parents’ place. I had a straight talk with them about the potential dangers, but they continued to leave them there. My father is also an alcoholic with a bad track record for child-minding—once, when a relative, then about 2, was left alone with him, someone came back to find Dad passed out on the sofa and the child hysterically beating at the front door, trying to get out.

A couple of years ago the older niece asked why I wasn’t seeing my father (I have taken a few breaks from seeing him over the years, and this time it meant I wasn’t at some large family gathering). I was taken by surprise and said that Dad had done something I didn’t like when I was small, and I was angry with him and didn’t want to see him, and left it at that.

My niece is now 13 and about to come and stay with me and my partner for a couple of days. My question is: If she asks about Dad again, is it appropriate to tell her he sexually abused me? I’m aware that this is her grandfather, with whom she has her own relationship. Should I tell her so that she’s forewarned? (Though I think she’s out of the danger zone, age-wise.) If I did tell her, how would it be best to frame it? I don’t want to fob her off if she asks. I also don’t know if telling her is appropriate, at her age. I’m fairly certain her parents will not have mentioned it.

—To Tell or Not to Tell?

Dear Tell,

Nothing burns my grits more than multigenerational child abuse enabled by willful silence, and I applaud you for being the only adult in this scenario who wants that to end.

Your past is your story, and you have every right to share it. Telling your niece is tricky (I say, while firmly encouraging you to do it). This may result in you not being allowed to see your nieces again. Forewarning your brother—“Just so you know, I will be telling Mandy that our father molested me”—is unlikely to go over any better. People determined to live under a damn rock to avoid unpleasantness are extremely unhappy to have anyone attempt to lift said rock.

I would tell your niece the truth plainly and simply, when asked. I would also say that because no one believed you, you will always believe her, and that if anything bad or scary or shameful-seeming occurs in her life, you’re a phone call or an email away. (Make sure she has your phone number and email address, in case her parents cut her off.) I say this because it’s true: It’s possible that something has already happened to your niece, and you will want to be that person in her life, no matter what comes from this.

I’m so sorry.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve got a toddler, and while we’re not into potty-training territory yet, it’s imminent within the next year or so. I’m perfectly OK with her being in the bathroom with me, explaining what’s going on, using proper body part names, etc. So what’s the problem?

I have a piercing. Downstairs. How on Earth do I avoid having that conversation with my kid?? Or, have it in such a way that doesn’t result in her informing her preschool teachers or all of our extended family or street randos about it? (Which, if you’ve ever spent five minutes around a 3-year-old, is a totally valid fear!)

The jewelry isn’t sparkly or anything, which is a good thing because toddlers are magpies. But, it’s still a noticeable piece of metal. I don’t want to act weird about her seeing my body, whether it’s while using the toilet, bathing, dressing, whatever. But, I also don’t want to have to explain to my kid why she can’t have her own piercing, or for her to tell other people about mine. I really don’t want to take the piercing out, but I also think I might die of embarrassment if she announced it at family Christmas or something. Help!

—Magpie Mom

Dear MM,

Ah, the joys of parenting. I wish I had a solution more magical than “You are going to have to decide whether you would rather take out your piercing or hear a running commentary about this piercing from your child and likely a selection of other random people.”

I do not. That’s the answer. She’s 100 percent going to talk about it. I would probably pop it out during the naked-around-the-kids years and then put it back once you’ve moved into the next phase. It doesn’t mean you have anything to be ashamed of, it’s just to avoid the hassle.

—Nicole

Ask a Teacher

I know the standard line is that teachers don’t have favorites. But you must have favorites. My child is lovely—sweet, smart, and dutiful—but he’s got a tough exterior to crack, and he doesn’t let many people in. He’s in third grade now at public school, and since preschool, he’s only had one teacher who really got him. That was a great year. This year, he’s telling me that his teacher “plays favorites,” and I can see that he’s hurt he’s not one of them. What’s the best thing to tell him?