Care and Feeding

Our Son’s Next-Door Friend Is an Aggressive, Manipulative Trickster

He keeps leading our child into trouble, and yet he adores him. What can we do?

Boy looking over a fence.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by kneafsey/iStock/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,

Our neighbors moved in next door a couple of years ago. We were thrilled when we discovered they had kids. Their son is one year older than our son, and, while we initially thought he would be a convenient playmate for our son, we couldn’t have been more wrong. On the day his family arrived, we invited their son to play in our backyard so that his parents could focus on moving in. The new neighbor boy immediately reached out from the top deck of our play set and started dismantling the swings from the beam, to the great amusement of our son. He also proved to be a rough and aggressive kid with no regard for others’ belongings. To his credit, when we intervene, he changes his behavior, but only momentarily.

Besides being excessively aggressive, he’s manipulative as well. He instructs our son to do things that he knows will get my son in trouble (even from his side of the fence during this time of quarantine). Even though we have discussions with our son about how, “The neighbor boy knew you would get in trouble for holding up your middle finger. Do you think he’s your friend?,” our son can’t help but think of him as a friend or even as an older boy to look up to.

We simply don’t have the time to be constantly supervising them. We’ve gone from being thankful for having a neighbor boy for our son to play with to being fearful of letting our son play outside at all. I have spoken with his parents about his behavior a few times, but honestly, I could tell them unpleasant things about their son every day. We feel stuck. What can we do?

—Blustered by This Bully

Dear BbTB,

I am sorry for whatever issues this neighbor kid has, but you have written to me and his parents have not.

Today you get a bonus, in that I often run tough questions by my (very handsome) husband, who has a Ph.D. and two postdocs in theoretical condensed matter physics from Princeton and Oxford and the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and was born in 1968 and frequently has a different perspective on how to handle things and is objectively smarter than I am in many areas, as I am a sweet summer child from the 1980s and had the original Helicopter Dad consistently protecting me from other children and also the possibility of getting mud on my clothes.

My answer was “BUILD A MASSIVE FUCKING SHED AGAINST THE FENCE SO THIS KID CAN’T HASSLE YOUR SON,” which I stand by as a valid solution.

My husband feels that this is an opportunity for you to teach your son that the world will present him with many people who do not will his good, who are manipulative and nasty and unpleasant, and that learning this lesson now and working through it with him will stand him in good stead as he goes through school and then life in general. It sucks to have to do the work, but this is an opportunity for you to teach him to recognize manipulation and fake friends and keep pushing him to build resilience and refuse to be a victim. You can’t watch him all the time, as you have stated, but you can debrief and then drill down on their interactions. You can also take half an hour out of your day to tell the neighbor kid (politely, firmly) to shove it when you see him suggesting your son toss your cats into the pool.

Also, keep lightly bugging your neighbors about the objectively bad and potentially dangerous behavior he is exhibiting around your kid. They may build their own massive fucking shed just to avoid hearing from you, which is a win in and of itself.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have an independent, curious, strong-willed 3-year-old. These are qualities that, while challenging as a parent, will help her be the best person she can be. However, in the meantime, it makes it difficult to parent her. She is always right, and we have to tell her 10 times before she listens. Usually she has some explanation for us of why she is doing whatever she is doing, but it’s hard to listen to five minutes of explanation for every little thing.

Sometimes, I just want her to stop sticking the metaphorical fork in the metaphorical toaster without hearing her reasoning on why it’s necessary. Yesterday she ran out into the street after a toy and was lucky a car was able to stop without hitting her. My yelling and sprinting after her made no impression until I physically picked her up. It was a bit of a wake-up call as to how far this has gone. I don’t want her to lose her independent spirit, but I really want to see her reach the age of 4. How can I get her to listen first and explain later?

—Just Listen to Me!

Dear JLtM,

Ah, yes. I myself gave birth to one fully-formed Philadelphia lawyer and have been reaping the whirlwind ever since.

Look: You don’t have to explain everything. I know we all remember being aggravated by “because I’m the mom and that’s why,” and hence believe we have to make a case that will stand up to intense scrutiny for why you cannot hurl peas at your brother. But it’s just not true. Not with a 3-year-old. We found “because we want you to be safe and happy, that’s why” to work relatively well.

Three-year-olds are especially challenging because you think you’ve turned the corner on random acts of foolishness, only to realize the foolishness remains BUT now they can talk back to you about it.

Consequences, babe. Pick up the kid, drag her back inside, and tell her she doesn’t get to go outside for the rest of the day because she didn’t listen to you. Don’t get sucked into hostage negotiations. Take away the toy she’s throwing a fit about. If she acts a dangerous fool, she has to re-earn your trust before she can do the preferred activity again. You can call it consequences or you can call it punishment, but no one gets through these years without it.

I, too, wish your daughter to reach the age of 4! I think we’re all on the same page here. I think often of the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Deanna Troi keeps flunking the command simulation until she realizes her first duty is “to the ship.” Your child’s life is the ship. She will not be harmed if you lose your mind yelling at her in an objectively dangerous situation. You need to earn your command status. She will still be the same spunky, independent-minded person as an adult, just … alive.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I just want to pop in as a childless 33-year-old woman. My upbringing was complicated, at best. To be honest, I wish that my parents cared enough about me to write into an advice column. As a person who wants children but never felt wanted as a child, it’s strangely and significantly comforting to read this column; to read how parents, many of them my peers, are managing and struggling and so many other things during this time, even if I can’t really relate.

I don’t know what it’s like to suddenly have to home-school a kid, but I do know what it’s like to be a kid suddenly home-schooled for unknown reasons. I guess I just want the readers and writers of this column to know that you’re doing just fine, at worst. Probably much better than just fine. I admire you and hope you and yours are getting the support they need.

—Erin in Philly

Dear Erin,

Thank you so much for this. It’s a much-appreciated dose of perspective. I wish I had a time machine so your upbringing could have been less complicated, but it’s always good to be reminded that your best is usually pretty good, that children are resilient, and that all things will pass.

Is It Safe to Add Other Families to Your Quarantine Bubble?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two bright, energetic, and engaged kids. My daughter, A, is 3 and is generally easygoing, takes well to instruction, and is happy to play solo or amicably with her brother. My son, P, is 5 and is more mercurial. He can be very sweet, especially with his father and other caretakers, but has a stubborn, aggressive streak that has me at my wits’ end.

We have three main problems right now. First is that for meals, if he doesn’t get exactly what he wants, he just won’t eat, and we spend mealtimes fighting. How do I avoid rewarding his dinnertime holdout with sweets (his preferred supper, of course) or sending him to bed hungry?

That brings us to problem two: P will decide he’s the one who can make the rules and incidentally, the rules always favor him. In a bath with A, he will decide that the person in the front of the tub gets the toys, but when A moves to the front, the rules shift so that the person in the back gets the toys. He dictates how his sister should use Legos. This means that basically all activities the kids do together, even unstructured play, have to be directly supervised as A will either quietly be bullied into giving up what she wants or there will be a fight ending in P’s timeout.

The last issue is that he doesn’t listen. I don’t mean that he ignores you in the way that kids do. You can see it in his eyes that he’s checking out of conversations. His eyes and face go blank, and when I ask him to repeat what I say, he has no idea. When I ask him to do something simple like put on his shoes, it takes an incredibly long time with multiple reminders along the way (even when going outside was his idea!).

These things were all issues before we were stuck at home, but being in school made the daytime more manageable. Now that we’re always here, it’s become untenable. I’m tired of fighting with him. I know there’s a sweet boy in there! I also don’t want A to be shortchanged because P is a bad playmate that dominates their parents’ attention.

We plan to have him tested when school starts up again, but in the meantime, how do I help him bring peace to our house?

—Helpless at Home

Dear Helpless at Home,

Oh, boy. This is less than ideal. I am very glad to hear you’re planning on having him evaluated when that becomes possible, as he could just be a really aggravating 5-year-old or he could have a conduct disorder, and I have to admit these behaviors and “checking out” are throwing up some red flags for me. I would encourage you to see if any form of telemedicine can be employed sooner, but obviously you can only do what your options allow.

Thank you for recognizing that all intra-sibling play must be aggressively supervised. Your daughter’s emotional (and possibly physical) well-being is paramount here, and I have seen too many parents convinced their “sweet boy” (or girl!) won’t do something actually malevolent until they do. Especially in this artificial pressure cooker we are all existing in.

In the meantime, in addition to the absolutely vital supervision we have already discussed, you need to stop treating him with kid gloves. If he doesn’t want to eat dinner, you do not need to fight about it, and you certainly cannot give him candy—he gets to be done eating for the night. It’s the world’s oldest natural consequence. Bath time rules get established at the beginning of the bath, and if he wants to try to bully his sister into swapping them when they are no longer in his favor, he’s out of the bath. Timeouts are fine. Timeouts can benefit all parties involved. I know people have started to talk about “time-INs,” which is apparently having exhausting conversations during a time meant to allow everyone to cool down and process their own feelings, but I personally feel this is merely another rod we have fashioned for our own backs.

Your son has some non-age-appropriate issues going on. This is very obvious. I encourage you to find (as though it’s simple!) time to spend with him individually and your daughter individually, and make that a space for conversation about how things are going. Your daughter is too little to contribute much to this, but just having her feelings validated and hearing sympathetic noises will go a long way, as will protecting her from her brother’s mercurial tendencies. Your son needs to hear you love him but not his behaviors, and I truly, truly hope that some professional assistance and drawing firm boundaries around acceptable conduct will help redirect what is still a very, very young child in a very difficult societal situation.

But I am concerned, and I am glad you know that he needs evaluation and also to be supervised constantly around your daughter. You need to toughen up on him, but you also need to try to drag some communication out of him. I’m going to recommend the invaluable tome How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I also think he might benefit from reading What Were You Thinking?, which is designed for kids with problems with impulse control and executive function and focuses on strategies rather than guilt trips.

I would also caution you that the waitlist for formal evaluation of behavioral issues in kids is truly, truly epic in many locations, and you should try to get on that list now, so you do not emerge blinking into the sunlight and call your pediatrician who refers you to a developmental pediatrician who announces your local evaluation center can see you in six months.

Please keep me posted. I am worried about you.

—Nicole

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