Heavy Meddle: We Love Our Friends But We Do Not Love Their Kids

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Dear Steve,

What do you do when you have friends that you love, but you are not so keen on their kids? The kids are about six. The general pattern is: they come, they don’t listen, they bounce off the walls. But we love the parents. We are also not big on how they interact with their kids and control them, or fail to do so. But they are great for conversation and fun to be around.


What to do?

No Kidding

Dear No Kidding,

You have every right to your opinion. I myself have friends with kids that I’m not crazy about, and I say that as the parent of two sometimes-rambunctious young children, and a sometimes-rambunctious infant. It would be fair to assume that some friends feel this way about me and my brood, as well.

So I empathize with your situation. The days of children-should-be-seen-not-heard parenting may have gone too far in the direction of shunting kids aside. But modern “child-centered” parenting too often devolves into situations like the ones you describe, in which the kids are allowed to run wild, making it nearly impossible for the adults to interact.

It sounds to me like the real problem here isn’t the kids, so much as the way they’re being parented.

All of which is my way of saying that it sounds to me like the real problem here isn’t the kids, so much as the way they’re being parented. My wife and I don’t always live up to this, but what we strive for is a house in which we give the kids plenty of love and room to roam, but clear limits. We don’t want them to feel that they have the right to interrupt other people, especially guests, let alone to trample all other discourse. This isn’t just about creating the right vibe for an adult gathering. Kids themselves do best when they know that there’s a limit to their power, because unlimited power actually makes them anxious.

As for what you should do, that’s a trickier question. I am making the (perhaps stupid) assumption that the “we” in your letter represents you and your partner, and that you guys don’t have kids. I assume this because you make no mention of how your kids interact with theirs, or how your parenting differs from theirs. Honestly, from the tone of your note, you don’t sound terribly concerned about these kids being brats. It’s more like they’re a bratty impediment to relating to your friends. Which is fine. There’s no law that says you have to enjoy spending time with the children of your friends. Or spend time with them at all, frankly.

My guess is that the kids are picking up on the fact that you guys and their folks are more interested in relating to each other than them, and that this causes them to act out around you. Kids are exquisitely sensitive to such dynamics.

So if you really just want to relate to the parents, find ways to do so that don’t involve the whole family. An evening dinner party, for instance. Or a night out that takes place after the kids have gone down. What I would avoid doing is leaving the impression that you don’t like the kids, or that you disapprove of your friends’ parenting style. Instead, I’d emphasize the positive: that you really love spending time with these folks and just want a chance to relate to them.

The catch is that your friends may very well pick up on the fact that you’re ducking the kids. (They’re not dumb, after all, and you may not be the only friends around whom their kids have acted out.) Parents in these situations inevitably feel both hurt and implicated. After all, being a parent is a core part of who they are now. And nobody wants to hear that they’re screwing up the one mission they most want to get right.

Your friends might make it clear to you — either overtly, or indirectly — that hanging out with them is a package deal, kids included. I hope this isn’t the case, because I do think that parents need time to unwind and should have relationships that don’t center around their children. But that decision is ultimately theirs to make.

There’s also a chance that they’ll ask you whether you’re avoiding their kids, and why. If they do, then you have a decision of your own to make. Because if you truly love these friends of yours, if they’re not just “fun to be around” but important people in your life, I’ve got to imagine that you’d want to offer them support. This could come in the form of offering a sympathetic ear, or some gentle feedback about how the kids seem to be running them ragged, or even an offer to engage with the kids directly. (This may seem like a crazy suggestion to you. If so, disregard it. But kids do tend to be much better behaved away from their parents.)

It’s not really fair, or realistic, to expect these folks to be available for hanging out in the same way they were in the old days, before the kids came along.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not really fair, or realistic, to expect these folks to be available for hanging out in the same way they were in the old days, before the kids came along. They are deeply invested in the necessary work of raising their children. And if they seem to be struggling (as they do!) perhaps it behooves you to … help out somehow?

It may be that you really just want to hang out with them. And as noted above, this is its own valuable form of support. But if you can offer more, I imagine they’d be grateful.

Enduring friendships are like this. As people’s lives get more complicated, the role of friend gets more complicated too. It’s a challenge to your patience and empathy. That doesn’t mean you have to accept this challenge, but you should at least consider it, both to preserve the friendship, and to honor it.


Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

This program aired on November 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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