Care and Feeding

Mean Girls

My daughter has a toxic friendship. Should I put an end to it?

A young girl stressed out with her head in her left hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Roy McMahon/DigitalVision via Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 9-year-old daughter has had a tumultuous relationship with a friend for the last four or so years. The intensity has always confused me, but this year their fights have become more extreme. My advice has been to try to cool off the friendship gently. However, my daughter feels very drawn to this friend, and apparently her friend feels the same because they can’t seem to stay apart. They are not in the same class but both attend after-school care so it’s about 10 hours a week together. Should I suggest that my daughter be “busy” or want to do something else when approached? Be direct that their friendship isn’t working? Go back to being friends and work harder on problem-solving? I feel that both girls have been unkind to each other, and I want the drama to end.

—Drama in the District

Dear Drama,

Children’s friendships can be very intense and take up a lot of their emotional real estate. I absolutely can remember, at 9, feeling that my (complicated, often tumultuous) relationship with my best friend since the age of 3, Susan, was the most important one in my life. It’s true that, like your daughter and her friend, Susan and I were sometimes unkind to each other. Perhaps if my parents, or hers, had been aware of all the drama between us (but of course in Olden Tymes—that is, the 1950s and ’60s—parents were hardly ever aware of that sort of thing), they would have tried to break us up. I’m glad they didn’t. That friendship really mattered to me. Without it, there would have been less drama in my life for sure—but there would also have been less love because we were devoted to each other. We got each other in a way no one else did.

I have no way of knowing if this friendship your daughter is in is as important to her as mine with Susan was. But I can tell you with great certainty that I learned a lot from the years I was in it, and that this was something I kept in mind, much later, when I watched my own daughter navigate a number of difficult, drama-prone, super-intense friendships. When a neighborhood friend of Grace’s stormed out of our house, shouting and in tears—or Grace returned from playing at a friend’s house, sobbing and inconsolable … or when I overheard her and a friend struggling with whatever unimaginable crisis had reared up between them—l remembered, and I stayed quiet unless I was asked for help.

These early relationships teach children how to be in relationships, which—as we all know—don’t always go smoothly. Kids need to develop the tools to work things out, and figure out for themselves when enough might be enough. Sure, you can (you should!) ask your daughter how the relationship is making her feel, and if she’s feeling bad, ask her what she thinks might make her feel better. You can offer age-appropriate strategies for working through problems in a friendship. But what you need to remember is that this isn’t your drama to be tired of, it’s hers. If she wants it to end, that’s one thing: if she asks you how to disengage, then go for it. Otherwise, I’d let the kids work this out—or not—on their own. Life lessons are worth their weight in gold.

And I can pretty much guarantee that if you tell your child this friendship isn’t working, or outright forbid it, it will not end the drama. It will only usher in a new and different sort of drama, trust me.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son, “Jake,” was in fourth grade last year and made friends with a fifth grader, “Mark.” We were relatively new in town, and it was great that Jake had made a friend. Jake wanted to invite Mark to play, but he didn’t know his last name; I gave Jake a slip of paper with my number and email on it to give to Mark, but he kept forgetting to give it to him. Later in the year, Mark invited Jake to his birthday party, and that’s how I learned his last name and his parents’ names and cellphone numbers—they were printed on the invitation, which Mark had hand-delivered at school. A week after the party, I texted to ask if Mark would like to come over to our house to play, and they said yes. The boys had a great time together. But Mark’s parents didn’t invite Jake back. Jake kept begging me to text Mark’s parents, and we had to have several conversations about why it wasn’t appropriate for me to text them so frequently, but about once every other week I’d invite Mark to play. The parents always said yes but never reciprocated.

Now Mark is in middle school, which is a totally separate school from the elementary school that Jake still attends. Jake never sees Mark anymore and has been begging me to call or text his parents. Neither boy is allowed to have their own phone yet, so they rely on their parents to communicate. I’m very uncomfortable with having to constantly ask them and never getting reciprocation. Why would people act like this? If they dislike me or my son, I’d think they’d make excuses to avoid getting the kids together, but they don’t do that. It makes me feel so rejected that they treat our boys’ friendship like a one-way street! The kids clearly love to be together. Should I suck it up and let it go, and keep inviting and hosting Mark? I can’t figure out a way to tactfully tell them that I’m offended they never ask.

—Always Asking, Never Asked

Dear Always Asking,

So let’s talk a little more about the tricky business of separating our feelings from our kids’ when it comes to their friendships. Mark’s parents may be rude, thoughtless, selfish, clueless/assholes. Or they may be a couple of introverts who find it very difficult to have people over, even their son’s friends. Maybe one of them is ill, physically or mentally. Maybe both of them are. Or maybe they are both so insanely busy (or not that busy, but easily overwhelmed by an ordinary level of busyness) that this perfectly simple task never even gets on their radar. You have no idea what’s going on with them.

And if this were about your relationship with them, that would matter, and you could (and probably would) decide to call if off because friendship is indeed not a one-way street. But this is about Mark and Jake, not about his parents or you. So let’s not call continuing to host this kid (whom your own kid likes so much!) for play dates “sucking it up.” Let’s call it giving these children a fair chance at a friendship that seems to mean something to both of them, regardless of the oddity of your child never being invited to play at his friend’s place. In a few years, if these two are still friends, they’ll be able to work out the terms of getting together without any parental intervention. For now, they need your help. And if these kids “clearly love” to be together—and if it isn’t a great hardship for you—I’d just accept their playing at your place as a given for now.

Even if it turns out the explanation for Mark’s parents’ behavior is that they don’t like you, it would be a kindness to the two boys not to allow that to interfere with the relationship they have formed (and that you have so generously fostered all this time). I know I wouldn’t want to force a play date at someone else’s house if the parents in question aren’t enthusiastic about hosting (and I can remember a couple of situations from my daughter’s childhood in which I actively took over all or nearly all the hosting because I wasn’t crazy about the level of supervision—or the atmosphere—at the other child’s home). Keep your eye on the prize if you can, and your own hurt feelings and confusion out of it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 4-year-old daughter has a playmate, “Luke.” Luke is our next-door neighbor and attends the same preschool she does. Luke’s mom has become one of my closest friends over the last few years—our families vacation together and spend holidays at each other’s houses, and our kids get along very well. Luke very recently developed an obsession with Star Wars. This otherwise chill, hilarious kid—whose mom is so anti-gun that she won’t allow water pistols in her house—has become a walking, talking encyclopedia of Anakin et al. He has seen all the movies multiple times and is constantly playing Star Wars on the playground and on play dates.

A couple of nights ago, we were all at Luke’s family’s house and while playing through an imaginary Star Wars scene in a different room from the one the adults were in, Luke told my daughter and another child that he was going to “kill them.” Our daughter freaked out and told us. Luke, sobbing, admitted saying it and was made to apologize; his mom told him it was never OK to say that—even in pretend play. We discussed it on the spot with our daughter and then again when we got home. But she has woken up the last few nights from nightmares and today she told us that she was afraid that “bad guys” are going to “shoot her.” When we asked what that means to her, she said, “Bad guys like Darth Vader are going to shoot me and kill me.” We told her (again) that none of that was real or going to happen.

My husband thinks I should talk to Luke’s mom, telling her that playing Star Wars has given our daughter nightmares, making it very clear that the kids can’t play that game anymore. I’m frustrated, too, because I would never expose my preschool-age kid to such violence and am upset that I have to deal with the repercussions of someone else’s parenting decisions. We’ve practiced with our daughter what she could say if Luke starts to play Star Wars again, and also how to walk away and find someone else to play with on the playground, but should I also speak to my friend? If so, what should I say? It’s bound to come up soon, because the kids play together every day at recess and see each other every weekend. I would love a script, if you have one!

—Don’t Shoot, She’s Only Four!

Dear DSSOF,

Listen, dealing with the repercussions of someone else’s parenting decisions is part of being a parent. I know it can be upsetting, but since we don’t get to control anything about how other people raise their children, all we can do is raise our own kids as best we can, giving them the necessary tools to deal with frightening and alarming stuff that will inevitably come their way. Helping your daughter with strategies to avoid future exposure to something that disturbs her and teaching her how to stand up for herself (and also how to walk away) are all essential.

I want to point out a few things here to help you keep perspective. One is that you are so lucky to enjoy the company of Luke’s parents! What are the odds that your kid befriends someone whose parents become people you’re close to? (Ask any parent: odds are not necessarily great.) This is a fantastic situation. Don’t let your appreciation of that out of your sight for a minute. You have years ahead of you of kid friendship situations where the parent-to-parent interactions are ones you’ll want to keep to a minimum (or that will baffle you, like poor Always Asking, above). Just wait till she starts regular school.

Another thing is that, as parenting fails go, letting 4-year-old Luke become obsessed with Star Wars (though I’ll admit, I hate it too) is not so terrible. I mean, a lot of 4-year-olds are similarly obsessed. I am completely with you on avoiding exposing small children to violence, but it’s worth saying again that we don’t get to decide this sort of thing for other families. And that’s not a bad thing. It means our kids get practice, early, in dealing with unfamiliar, upsetting, even scary things. And we get a chance to talk to them about these things.

Also: at 4, it’s not unusual for a child to get “stuck” on a particular frightening idea or image. You never know what’s going to send your child down that path, either. I was sure my daughter would love the gorgeous children’s book by Arthur Yorinks, Louis the Fish, since she’d loved another book of his, Hey, Al, but Louis gave her nightmares every night for many days. I tend to think these frightening ideas they become preoccupied with are early ways for them to work out their fears, and that what’s most important is how you respond to them, both in the moment and in an ongoing way.

Finally: that script. I would let it go. Let your daughter be the one to say, “I don’t want to play that game anymore.” It’ll be good for her. And it’ll be better in the long run for Luke to hear this from her than from his mother. (And telling her about the nightmares is only going to make her feel terrible, which I’m sure you don’t want.) If it turns out that your daughter can’t get Luke to let go of Star Wars when they play together, then I’d make a phone call. And all I’d say is, “I know how much Luke loves Star Wars, but it turns out that my kid really, really hates it and she’s having no luck getting him to switch gears. Do you think you could give her a hand with that? I would be really grateful.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My best friend, “Amy,” has an adorable, smart, and very active 3-year-old, “Evan.” He can be a handful, and Amy does little to curb it. I’m not here to judge her parenting (while I do find myself digging my nails into my skin to stop myself from saying things sometimes, I know it’s not my place to judge), but there is one thing she does that drives me insane: She makes everybody else the bad guy. I’ve watched her say to Evan when he acts up, “Do you want me to go get Daddy?” like Daddy is someone to be feared. We were recently at a restaurant together, and Evan got out of his chair and pulled it around such that it banged into the people next to us. When Amy didn’t tell him to knock it off, I did. He stopped for a second, then went back to it—and Amy said, “Evan, she told you to stop.”

I know that seems like a minor example, like perhaps she’s trying to teach him to listen to others, but this sort of thing happens all the time. She never corrects him herself unless he’s doing something really, really bad, like she’s leaving the discipline to everyone else so she doesn’t have to be the mean mom. I suppose I could sit tight and bear it while he annoys the heck out of everyone around us and Amy blithely ignores it, but that just makes me not want to spend time with them. Do I have grounds to say something here? And if so, what?

—I’m Not the Bad Guy

Dear INtBG,

You don’t have to be OK with Amy’s avoiding being “the mean mom” but no, you don’t have grounds to say something. Of course, if you stop seeing her altogether—and you’re the one who raises that as a possibility, not I—and she understandably wants to know why, you’re going to have to tell her: “I’m sorry, but I can’t stand the way you let Evan run amok in restaurants. And I know it’s not my place to try to rein him in.” (I’m trying hard to imagine a scenario in which your friend would say, “No, please, I wish you would! Please discipline my child for me!” And while I can’t see it, just in case she were to actually say this, I give you permission to explain why that’s a bad idea.)

More to the point, since this is your best friend we’re talking about, if her son, like most 3-year-olds, can’t manage to sit quietly in a restaurant while you and his mother try to have a nice quiet adult conversation, it would be a kindness to her if you would suggest alternate activities when the three of you get together—i.e., something that would be fun for Evan, too.

I have a sneaking suspicion that some of what’s going on here is your irritation that your (longtime?) relationship with Amy has changed. But even if I’m wrong about that and you are in fact thrilled to have a small third wheel along for the ride, I wish you’d be honest with yourself: you are judging her. And I totally get that (I’m a pretty judge-y person myself, especially when it comes to parenting). But trust me: One of the quickest ways to end a friendship is to tell someone you don’t like the way she’s raising her kid.

—Michelle

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