If there’s anything that gives me heartburn, it’s the concern about the choices that the kids make for friends. It really is true what they say: you’re judged by the company that you keep and one bad apple can spoil the barrel. I used to think that it was just my own parents’ old school cynicism and closed-mindedness, but I now accept it with the same faith that I acknowledge the sun’s rising in the east. How do I manage to keep tabs on who’s coming in the door next and how do I somehow separate them from someone who really is a rolling, bleeding, god-awful trainwreck?
Let me start by saying that over the years, I’ve come to believe that in many cases, the problem isn’t necessarily the children so much as it is the parents. Absentee parents, lackadaisical parents, parents-who-are-trying-too-hard-to-be-buddies, no-accountability parents – there are a plethora of bad parents out there. I’m not perfect. I tend to crankiness and impatience and I don’t suffer fools as easily as I once did. When talking with a child’s friend about why he was failing a class, the response from both child and friend was that the teacher had it out for the friend ever since his marriage went on the rocks and he couldn’t find a good woman. My response was so let me get this straight. You’re failing a class because your teacher can’t get laid? For the record, both are teens and sometimes, an earthy response will cut through layers of nonsense. Regardless, I’m witnessing any number of kids whose parents are not serving them well and I know this because my own kids are bringing them home. It used to be that there was common ground amongst parents and most kids were raised in a manner with common values and common expectations; this has degraded enough so that kids are doing things that were once considered – at best – inappropriate but they’re clueless because no one has actually taken the time or effort to teach them otherwise.
So how do I work through the heartburn? After all, it only increases as they age and my ability to monitor and control correspondingly decreases. As they age and grow, their friends do the same and they all come under the wider influences of the outside world via increased media exposure, older siblings and even families that break apart over the course of time.
- Listen explicitly for names and through discussion and further listening, determine who these various children are and the context in which I’m hearing about them. Even if I don’t hear their names for awhile, I’ll resurrect them in conversation just to hear what’s happened with them. It’s through this that I’ve learned who’s transferred out, who’s wound up in the principal’s office and who’s even starting to go with whom.
- If certain names crop up repeatedly, actually find a reason to visit the class so that I can put a face with this name and take some measure of the child. Given two particular names that I was hearing through the Fall semester, I happily agreed to join Youngest for his school lunch so that I could put faces with names and behaviors.
- Chat with neighbors and other parents to cross-reference stories on children and teens and learn more about them. It sounds sneaky at times, but having grown up in a small town, I guarantee that both my parents were cross-referencing with other parents to gain a better sense of who’s out there. I was passing along information to another parent the other evening. On one level, it sounds like gossip but the reality is that we’re talking about behaviors and things that have happened, which was the tenor of the most recent conversation. Because the schools are rightfully prohibited from discussing individual student behaviors, then comparing notes with other parents is about the only other way to keep tabs.
- Encourage the kids to bring their friends home to play so that you can put faces to names and learn their personalities. Our old house had a much larger yard with swingset that was conducive to outdoor play but the present house has a small, sloped yard that isn’t kid friendly so Youngest heads across the way to play with buddies. Consequently, we invested in redoing the basement and it’s common to have kids spending the night on weekends. The point is to have the kids here as much as possible in order to put a face with a name and gain some sense.
- Take notes, especially if a child becomes a major concern. When a child develops a friendship with someone, even a trainwreck, it’s difficult to have to force a breakoff and the more ammunition that you have the easier that it’ll be. It’s easier when they’re little but becomes more difficult when they age. In one particular circumstance, I had notes documenting seven particular instances in which the particular child had either lied, wound up in the principal’s office or set another child up to fail and in a spectacular fashion. Instead of telling my kid that I don’t trust this child and he’s trouble, I just walked through the instances and then stated that there would be no further contact outside of school. While I expected argument, the response was muted and acknowledged since there were no arguments to counteract what were real events. I wasn’t working on gut or feelings, that kid had screwed up royally and my own could mount no defense.
- I try to keep my own commentary about a friend as calm as possible – which can be difficult – in order to keep my own child’s defensiveness under control. There have been a very few instances where my own comments have gone over the edge but I work hard to control derogatory remarks or unpleasant remarks; the point is to try to keep the lines of communication sufficiently open that I can continue to gather what facts and observations that I can.
Friends play a huge role in a child’s development and there’s no way that I can – or should – pick all of my child’s friends. I can listen and observe and then work to help them make good choices. I can even, on occasion, forbid further contact with someone else. But they have to be able to learn to make good choices now and without some guidance, the odds of that happening are less than great.
And we can’t guide them when we can’t see who else is out there on the horizon.