‘Get into bed now!’ she hollers, taking in the fizzy cans of pop, sweets, X-Box control and iPads littered around. ‘That’s the last time Paul comes for a sleepover.’ But the next morning, instead of being contrite, the pair sulk over breakfast and within an hour her son marches in to say: ‘We’re bored!’
Julie, 38, grits her teeth, trying not to get annoyed. Because even though her son adores his best friend, she can’t stand the sight of him. ‘I shudder whenever I hear his name and dread Paul coming to our house,’ says Julie, of Meadows, Dubai. ‘My son is a good boy when he’s alone or with other children. He’s very chilled and loving, but when Paul is around he becomes a terror. It’s hard though because how can I tell him I don’t like his best friend?’
Julie’s not alone in dealing with other people’s children. But there is no escape; love them or loathe them, we have to learn to live with other people’s children for our own child’s sake – and it’s not easy.
‘First, understand that you are not being cruel-hearted if you dislike a child,’ says parenting expert Sue Atkins. ‘In fact it’s perfectly normal not to bond with some children.’
The author of bestselling books Parenting Made Easy – How To Raise Happy Children and Raising Happy Children for Dummies, Sue says, ‘There will always be children you won’t take to.’ But she blames the children’s parents, not the kids. ‘They have been moulded by their parents. As long as you put your annoyances to one side and encourage their endearing qualities – they usually have some – all will be well.’
Liz Fraser, modern family expert for Care.com, (the world’s largest online destination for finding and managing family care) agrees that most parents only worry about their children’s friends in terms of whether they are a good or a bad influence.
‘Whether we like our children’s friends is often more to do with whether we like the effect they have on our children,’ says Liz. ‘A good friend is generally one who has a positive effect on our children – in whatever way that is. And a bad one is the opposite.
‘Who our children like is not the same as who we like – and sometimes it’s hard to accept that, especially if we think those people are having a detrimental effect on our children.’
Sue agrees. Parenting, she stresses, is all about confidence, setting boundaries and stepping back to pause and consider what we are doing. ‘What happens is that often along the way, some parents hit a problem as raising children from toddler to teen can be challenging, exhausting and a roller-coaster ride.’
The good news is that when bad friends influence good kids, there are many ways to iron out problems – whether you have a toddler, a junior or a teen.
Dealing with preschoolers
The easiest time to exert control over your children’s friendships is when they are between two and four. This is when your children mainly play with your friends’ children. Since they are not yet at the age to go to school and choose their friends, you can pretty much nudge them towards the kind of friends you would like them to have, says Sue. ‘When children are in pre-school, it’s easy because you hold the cards. If you don’t like a child, don’t invite them round.’
But there could be times when issues can crop up. ‘Some friends of your children can be incredibly demanding – asking for things all the time instead of happily entertaining themselves,’ says Sue.
In such cases, Sue suggests that the parent politely advise the kid to find something to do. ‘For instance, you could encourage him/her to be resourceful and use their toys to play different games.’
She offers more tips to deal with problem friends of your child. ‘A high-spirited child, for instance, can be annoying,’ says Sue. ‘Or it could be their table manners that bother you. But there are usually ways around this – such as having a picnic outside or non-messy finger food inside. Distract them if play gets out of hand – or as a last resort, switch on a DVD. And try to arrange future get-togethers somewhere neutral, like the park.’
Liz suggests it would be useful to think about what you don’t like about a child. ‘Is it that they’re not well-mannered, don’t say their pleases and thank yous – or are they simply too boisterous? Usually it’s down to the parents holding different values to you.’
Parenting experts suggest laying down ground rules early in life. ‘School age – around five to seven years old – is when it starts to get tricky and this is the time to lay down rules,’ says Liz. ‘This is the stage when we lose control over who our children choose to be friends with.’
When they are young, we can influence their choice of friends a little by subtly not inviting ‘unwanted’ friends round to play, and encouraging them to spend more time with other friends, she says. ‘But who they initially choose as friends will always be up to them – and it’s important to let them make those choices, and allow them to decide who they like and who they don’t.
‘Allowing them to make choices at a young age will help them make good choices as they grow up. Of course you can nudge them in the right direction by suggesting friends that you would like to come over.’
Having high expectations of behaviour at home helps because children will naturally have the same expectations in others and that will often decide who they are drawn to as friends.
UK-based child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, 41, who is a member of the British Psychological Society and conducts seminars on parenting on BBC, says that ‘it’s important for your children and their friends who visit to stick to the house rules.
‘If a child can’t abide by your home rules then the next step is to say: “I’ll call your mum and then you will have to go home.” Hopefully it won’t come to that,’ says the mother of two girls aged 11 and 14.
‘You can also back it up by telling the parent of the other child that there was an incident but sugar-coating it by saying “but they had a great time otherwise”.’
As children get older it may become harder to influence their choice of friends. Other relationship issues, such as yo-yo friends – who are friends with your child when he or she wants to be, and ignores them the rest of the time – can be difficult for your child to deal with.
‘It’s hard to watch these kinds of friendships, but banning them often has the opposite effect,’ warns Amanda. ‘The best thing you can do is talk to your child about what makes a good friend and how friends make you feel – hopefully this will encourage them to think about who they really want to be friends with.’
She also suggests getting to know your children’s friends by inviting them over and getting a dialogue going.
‘It helps you see how the friendship works and step in if necessary. You can influence their friendships to a certain extent by getting to know the mums, but certainly by the age of seven and eight, children will find their own friends. At this point it’s important for parents to accept this and be supportive.’
‘Let children learn for themselves,’ she advises. ‘They will figure out who makes the best friends in the end and parents simply have to be sympathetic and understanding along the way.’
Liz offers a valuable pointer: ‘Who your children choose as friends says a lot about them,’ she says. ‘Once you observe their friendship patterns, you can learn a lot about your child. For instance, do they always seek out strong, dominating friends? Or weaker ones? Rebellious ones, or academic, studious types. All this may offer subtle hints into the personality of your child, which can help you in moulding him or her into a well-rounded person.’ However, she also warns: ‘Give it time and see how the friendship develops. Remember that children quite often have a super best friend for life for a few weeks, and then don’t speak to them for months. They can be quite fickle – so don’t feel the need to rush in the moment your children befriends the class nightmare – it’s just a natural thing, and probably won’t last!’
Tweens and teenagers
Even through the teenage years, your child is still learning about what makes a good friend. Remember that your job as a parent is not to like or hate your child’s friends but to help them develop social skills and create a friendship network of their own.
Says Amanda: ‘I remember the time my 11-year-old daughter brought a friend round and they went into my elder daughter’s bedroom and broke her mobile phone. My daughter knew she wasn’t allowed in her sister’s bedroom and said that her friend had persuaded her to go in. My position was that if she had a friend round, she was responsible for her behaviour too and if she let her friend break the house rule, then she was responsible for going along with her friend’s plan. The friend wasn’t able to come round again for a few months afterwards.’
Amanda says it’s important for parents to understand that their children need to take responsibility for their own friendship decisions. ‘Don’t tell them not to be friends with kids you find undesirable, but make it clear you won’t invite them round to play until they learn to behave better.’
Another major worry for parents with teenagers is that they have very little control over the kind of friends their children choose. Sue agrees. ‘It could be worrying because parenting attitudes vary,’ she says. ‘The reassuring news is that children tend to grow up with their parents’ values and therefore they tend to gravitate towards like-minded children. They don’t usually go off the rails – honestly!’
But if you want to get the message across that you don’t like their friend, do it subtly: ‘Lectures don’t go down well.
‘If you disapprove of their friend Bill, bring it up in a light-hearted way. Have family talk time over dinner – make a joke about why Bill is not so cool! Explain why staying up late playing music on an iPod makes you tired the next day and perhaps that’s why your friend is so grumpy,’ says Sue.
‘Whatever you do, don’t talk to the friend in question in person – it’s not appropriate. Remember the only people you have to consider, and console if necessary, are your own children.’
And so, even in the later years, the wading-in-and-telling-your-child-to-stay-away-from-so-and-so is still not the best approach.
‘All it does is make them hate you, and spend even more time with the Undesirable Friend, just to annoy you!’ says Liz.
‘A pretty frank chat explaining why you have a problem with so-and-so is always best. It’s important that they understand that you are trying to help, and not punish. That it’s about their best interests, not about you trying to control them.’ The experts say that while you can’t choose who your children hang out with at school or college, there is still a spot of social engineering parents can do.
Says Liz: ‘Some parents find it sad that their children don’t seem to be particularly friendly with your best friend’s kids. But what you need to establish here is that you respect each other’s needs. Your kids can have their friends round on occasions as long as they also allow you to meet up with your friends and be prepared to socialise in a friendly fashion with their children.
‘You can’t dictate who your children like and don’t like, but they do need to learn to get on with lots of people. Rather than trying to engineer friendships, give your children the skills they need to be sociable, by discussing situations and posing hypothetical questions about how they would behave in certain situations.
‘Be prepared to give and take, and who knows, they might decide that the friends you choose are ones they prefer too. But even if they do not, accept their choices.
‘Remember we all have different friends for different reasons – some friends share an interest in food, others have the same sense of humour. Your child is allowed to make the same choices and nine times out of 10, they will grow up making strong, healthy friendships.’