When Your Kid Is Friends With The 'Bad Kid,' Should You Intervene?

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This week’s Parental Advisory question comes to us from one of the most emotionally fraught locations on Earth: the first grade recess playground.

“Concerned parent” explains:

My son “Will,” who is in first grade, has reported that he tends to get in trouble when he plays with “Jake.” From what Will tells me, Jake tends to act out in class and is then disciplined by the teacher. It also sounds like Jake is bossy, and possibly on his way to becoming a bully. Will reports that Jake tells him what to do at recess, and that Jake kicks him out of his “club” if he doesn’t go along with it.

This has also led to Jake getting my son to do things like eat fallen leaves. The other day they both got into trouble because they wandered too far off the playground at recess, and the teacher had to go looking for them. There are obviously some safety concerns there.

Even more concerning, Will tells me that Jake can be physically violent towards other children. He apparently likes to hit and kick girls. Will has also told me that Jake walks around saying things like “50,000 deaths” and other disturbing things.

Before closing, let me say that I realise my son is not perfect. He does tend to copy other kids, and to latch on to them a little too closely, which is something I am trying to work on with him. I also know that he is somewhat of a pushover and is very sensitive, hence giving in to Jake’s demands. One thing I do know is that Will has never been violent, nor has he ever been mean to other children like Jake. My wife and I have worked very hard to instill a sense of kindness and any time Will has displayed even a hint of physical aggression towards his sister, we have shut it down quickly.

What do we do here? We haven’t outright forbid Will from playing with Jake, but we have talked a lot about how to make good decisions. We have also tried to make it clear that Jake is not his boss, and that he can play what he likes at recess. Will has told me that he doesn’t like playing with Jake, but that it is hard for him to ignore him. We have broached the topic with the teacher, only mentioning that Will is easily pushed around by others, and that we would appreciate it if she can help him assert himself if it seems he needs to.

These sound like silly immature problems because they are. We are talking about six-year-olds here after all! I just don’t want Will to end up branded as a bad kid, or to go down the wrong path early in his academic life.

-Concerned parent

Dear Concerned Parent,

You actually hit on a biggest part of the solution in your question, but unfortunately, it’s not a quick fix—the emphasis needs to be on helping Will get better at making good choices. And how do you do that? Over time and with lots of practice and examples.

The thing is, this really isn’t about this particular kid. There is always going to be a “Jake.” In first grade, in high school, in the workplace... there are “Jakes” all around us. As we grow and mature, we (hopefully) learn how to steer clear of them, how to lead more than we follow and how to limit the effects they have on our lives. Because those Jakes make us feel bad and we want people in our lives who make us feel good.

I reached out to Maureen Healy, an expert in children’s emotional health and author of The Emotionally Healthy Child; Helping Children Calm, Centre, and Make Smarter Choices, to ask her what Will might be getting out of the relationship with Jake. She says it boils down to connection.

“Kids want to feel connections,” Healy says. “And this friendship, it’s giving him some feeling of goodness, some feeling of connection ... and there’s probably also a level of fear.”

That fear, Healy says, might be rooted in the challenges of making new friends. If Jake stops being his friend, Will may worry that he won’t be able to make another one. And even though Jake doesn’t exactly make him feel good—quite the opposite—a bad connection is better than no connection at all.

To coach him in making better friendship choices, you can talk with him regularly about the interactions he has with his peers and how they make him feel. If he says he worked an assignment with another classmate, ask him how that went and how it felt to work together with “John” or “Alyssa.”

If he comes to you with another story about Jake and eating the leaves off the ground, ask him how it made him feel. Empathise with those feelings and talk through his other options. Instead of eating the leaf, for example, he could say, “No, that’s gross, leaves aren’t food,” he can suggest they join the kickball game instead or he can look around to see what John or Alyssa are playing. You might try role playing with him through some of these scenarios as they happen so he can practice what a good choice looks, feels and sounds like.

Healy also suggests you offer up examples from your own life experiences about a time you made a good choice or a bad choice with a friend or acquaintance, how it made you feel and what you wish you’d done differently. “Parents can mine their own lives and be genuine,” she says.

And finally, you might look for ways to help cultivate other positive peer connections in his life. If there is someone else he likes to play with—a neighbour, a child from an extracurricular activity or a classmate that he’s mentioned sitting with at lunch—schedule some playdates for him. The more positive connections he feels and the more practice he gets with making good choices, the easier it will be to resist Jake. It won’t happen overnight, but with you checking in, empathising and guiding him, he’ll get there.


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