If you have children, chances are you have already met a few friends of theirs whom you don’t like. Maybe it’s their rude language, rough dealings with other kids or just that look in their eyes that says, “I’m headed for trouble and I’m looking for new recruits.”
Let’s face it, bad kids are attention-grabbers. They do most—or all—of the stuff that parents tell kids not to do, and it seems as if they get away with it.
So of course their peers, including your child, treat them like superstars. “It has to do with the style of activities, the curiosity and the peer pressure,” says Alan W. Burkard, the department chair of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Marquette University. “Often those kids who are doing negative things are popular in school. And other children hope to be seen in the same way. Sometimes it’s to avoid other conflicts. If you’re friends with the kids who are doing the bullying, then maybe you can avoid it.”
Burkard says this is particularly true for ’tweeners. “You are going to see this most in the 4th and 5th grades through middle school,” he says. “Once they’re in high school, they develop their identity and friendships are more formed.”
Want to curb the bad-seed attraction?
“Talk to your children. Ask to meet their friends’ parents. The more you’re in touch with your child’s life, the more you’re going to be in touch with what is going on,” says Burkard. “If you notice that your child is mopey, aggressive or sad for a prolonged time, begin to talk to teachers and other staff members at their school. At parent-teacher conferences, ask ‘What is my son or daughter like, and do they connect in a positive way?’”
“Also talk to neighbors and parents of your kids’ friends. Get a sense of their interactions. Are they pushing or arguing a lot? Get that kind of information, and then talk to them,” Burkard adds.
Gerry Howze, director of program services for Pearls for Teen Girls in Milwaukee, says to use specifics when you speak to them about their friends and activities. “Establish a rapport where no question is ‘un-discussable,’” she says. “Set clear boundaries and help them to understand and process the whys behind ‘not running out into the middle of the street without looking both ways’ or the consequences of ‘throwing rocks that might break a window.’”
The sooner, the better, she says, “because as children grow, the opportunities for mischief grow as well.”
Concerned about the negative influence a particular child may have on your own? Have a chat with the kid’s parents. “Sometimes you will learn that this child is acting out as a sign of other issues,” insists Jeanette Kowalik, director of Health and Life Skills for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. “Maintain open dialogue with the parents as to their child’s behavior and why you have concerns about your child associating with them. Don’t assume the parents don’t care.”
Paint a picture of friendship
Experts say it is up to you as a parent to help your children understand what true friendship should look like. “Tell them how good friends relate to each other and begin to help them make decisions—sometimes it’s a decision to distance them or to only play with kids who treat them with respect and dignity,” Burkard says.
He says parents must empower their kids to say no, to know when it is time to speak with an adult about situations, and when to use assertive language, like “I don’t like it when you do that” or “I would like you to stop.”
Kowalik, a mother to a 12-year-old son, speaks from experience. “In grade school, my son befriended another child who was questionable. He came home and told me about this child’s antics,” she recalls. “I used those moments to point out that this child is not a true friend but an acquaintance. Teach your children that being popular is not what truly matters in life but maintaining quality relationships with people is.”
Eventually, this lifelong lesson catches on. “One day, the kids were outside but my son didn’t want to go out with them. He explained the things that the kids were doing—such as vandalism, bullying and stealing—all things which I raised him to reject,” she says. “I was impressed with his decision. In the end, I recalled where this mindset came from: lessons his father and I taught him about being respectful, having fun and not allowing others to get you into trouble.”
Be the example
It’s those scenarios that remind parents they are the mirror of what their children will reflect. “A lot of times (children) learn behaviors from their parents or another adult that they admire,” Burkard says.
And, while it can be difficult to see your children get sucked into the vacuum of negative influences, Burkard says to stay calm as you devise a strategy for their escape. “Encourage them to make good choices by getting them involved in activities and sports. Help them to make those connections and good friends,” he says. “You have to meet people in your neighborhood and schools. In some ways, it’s a family effort. It has to be fathers and mothers. Fathers have a key role, particularly with their sons. Boys are impressionable.”
Kowalik agrees. “Our children pay attention to how we act, that is, what type of company we keep and what type of conversations we entertain,” she says. “How can we expect our children to keep company with quality individuals if we don’t?”
If push comes to shove, remove your child from the offending environment, even if only for a little while. “Help them to make connections with other groups and find activities that the child is interested in,” Burkard suggests. Is your child a swimmer? Find a community swim club. Does he enjoy chess? Find weekly chess meets.
You cannot isolate your child from others in a neighborhood setting, but you can set parameters. If you are uncomfortable with your child going over to a particular family’s home, let the kids play in your yard or devise an activity that involves other children as well. “Our children are watching to see how we engage and deal with problem-solving,” Howze adds.
She urges parents to remain practical in their approach to protect their kids:
“Make sure that your children are supervised properly, and set safe boundaries,” Howze says. “Sometimes children get involved in mischief because of a lack of supervision.”
With younger children, have as many planned activities as possible, she says. “Seek out opportunities for the children to play, be safe and run.”
And beware of virtual bad influences as well. “Set up protectors to monitor cell phones, cable and the Internet. A child could put in a search for ‘Disney’ and get pornographic information,” Howze offers. “It’s crucial that you know what sites they’re accessing because it can open them up to be hurt. A little prevention goes a long way.”
Remember the purpose
But all of this safeguarding could backfire. By moving your children away from bad influences, you may become the object of their frustration. “Think about it: Your child claims to have fun with the child who is a bad influence. You may be a threat to that in their eyes. The key is to be patient and consistent with your response,” Kowalik says. “Explain to them that at the end of the day friends come and go but parents are going to be there and that they truly love you.”
Howze agrees. “You may be perceived as the monster, but parents have the responsibility to make the decision that is best for the child,” she says. “Love is not always warm and fuzzy.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.