Can you choose your kids’ friends?

Our six-year-old son got his class assignment as part of his report card, in the form of a nice welcoming letter from his Grade 1 teacher. There was a flurry of Facebook-ing amongst the parents-of-Primaries I have as Facebook friends, and it looked like much of their sweet little Primary class was going to be split into different Grade 1 classes.

I wasn’t worried or even that disappointed when I saw that he wasn’t going to have many familiar faces in his new class. He’s a friendly kid and not usually shy. He went into Primary not knowing a single soul in the school and it wasn’t a problem, right?

But I must admit, when he came home on the first day and announced which kids were *not* in his new Grade 1 class … I was relieved. All throughout Primary, my son seemed drawn to the kids that acted up. He’d come home from school with stories of how they were “rude” or “didn’t show respect” or “made loud noises when the teacher was talking.”

He loved these kids — LOVED THEM. He thought they were hilarious and I became extremely paranoid that he was going to start copying them, dooming his entire educational journey from the start.

I asked his lovely Primary teacher about this (um, repeatedly) at parent/teacher conferences, and she assured me he wasn’t picking up on their behaviour. Still, though, I worried. When he’d tell me stories about their antics, I’d ask if they’d gotten in trouble and remind him that what they did was NOT COOL. He seemed to get that, and definitely didn’t want to get in trouble.

But it wasn’t just the classroom clowning-around that bothered me. These kids also weren’t particularly nice to him on the playground.

They teased him and tried to leave him out of games, or told him he had to play a bad guy while they got to be the good guys. They told him “only girls” did such-and-such, wore a certain colour, played with a certain kind of toy, etc.

Was this was typical kids-on-the-playground stuff? Was it happening to lots of other kids? More importantly, why was my kid OK with it happening to him? Was this going to set him up for a lifetime of toxic friendships, or was I mistakenly judging these rowdy books by their covers?

A year later and I still don’t know. All I know is that on the first day of Grade 1, he announced sadly that these particular kids were not in his class … and I was glad.

“I’m not a fan of these kids,” I told him flat-out. “I’ve just never liked the way they treat you.”

“Well, I’m kind of a fan?” he responded slowly.

I sighed. I told him he could certainly be friends with them, even though I’m “not a fan.” I reminded him that he’s free to play with anyone he likes at recess and lunch, but that I hope he plays with friends who are nice to him. We talked — yet again — about how real friends don’t hit or bully.

I know it’s a matter of time before he begs to invite these kids here to play, and I don’t know what I should say. I don’t want to encourage these “friendships,” but on the plus side I’d be able to spot any nastiness and put the fear of God into them.

It’s a tricky situation and I don’t know how to handle it. For the first six years of motherhood, I’ve curated our childrens’ friendships — most just getting them together with the children of my own friends. I know that can’t go on forever, but it also doesn’t mean I’m ready to let our son and daughter run wild with kids who behave badly.

You hear, again and again, about the influence a child’s friends have over them. “Falling in with the wrong crowd” is a real thing, or else I’ve learned nothing from Baby-Sitters Club #87: Stacey and the Bad Girls. Sometimes that plays out as teenagers who sneak liquor into a U4Me concert, but what if — year by year — hanging out with naughty kids slowly turns your child into a troublemaker? Or is mindful parenting enough to keep your child on the straight and narrow even if they hang out with kids who are always getting into trouble?

(For the record, Stacey was appalled at the bad behaviour of her new “friends” and went back to the loyal girls in the BSC. So there’s hope for my boy, right?)

So what do you think?

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