Friendship Etiquette

May 2000

How do we protect our children from the hurts incurred in friendships? From birthday party omission to becoming an ex-best friend, our kids experience a full range of pain in everyday relationships. It is painful to watch this as a parent, not knowing when to intervene and when to keep silent. Personally, I advocate selectiveness, secretiveness, and sensitivity: say as little as possible (be selective and a little secretive) about your plans so as not to hurt someone not included (sensitivity). Based on mistakes I have made, I would like to suggest a few rules of thumb for parents to follow, in order to help minimize the pain.

Birthday Party Etiquette

Whenever possible, invite the whole class to the birthday party. They’re all going to find out anyway, and even if the kids who weren’t invited don’t care, their mothers will. Ask for help from the other parents, if necessary.

Or, if you can’t or don’t want to invite the whole class, but only who your child wants, insist that your child refrain from discussing the party or guest list at school. It also helps to let the invitees’ parents know that not everyone has been invited and ask if they can muzzle their kids as well.

Be prepared for the extra sibling or uninvited relative. Some parents are stuck and have no choice but to bring another kid to a birthday party. Make them feel welcome. It’s best to have a few extra goody bags on hand in case this happens.

If your child opens presents during the party, make sure he thanks each child and has something nice to say about each gift. Thank you notes are nice, too, but it’s equally important to acknowledge the child to his face.

Playdate Etiquette

If your child has plans with another child, but a second one invites him to play, teach him to be sensitive about saying no. Blurting out that he is already playing with David might make Josh feel left out. Children can learn to simply say, “Sorry, I’m busy today,” as adults do.

Have your child clean up some of the mess he’s made at his friend’s house. (I never do; but next time, I swear I will!) This way, maybe when they come to your house they’ll return the favor.

Don’t always be the playdate host; or, if you’re never the host, make sure you try to reciprocate sometimes. Your child should be learning how to host and how to be a guest and the other mother will appreciate the change of pace (or place).

Encourage your child to broaden his horizons, especially if he seems stuck on one friend. In the primary grades, nothing is more fickle than a best friend. They grow tired of each other just like adults do, but they are merciless and utterly without subtlety. It’s heartbreaking to watch the ex suddenly ignore your child. It’s much easier to move on if your child has a few other kids he likes playing with.

If the kids are squabbling over what to play, try the age-old timer solution. One kid gets ten minutes of his choice, then it’s the other kid’s turn. After one go-around, they are usually so sick of the timer that they work it out.

When the playdate’s over, get your kid out as fast as possible. There’s nothing more tiresome than when my child won’t leave. I feel like an idiot, standing shiftlessly in someone’s doorway, one knotted sneaker in hand, wanting to dart up the stairs and drag the kid out from under the bed by the hair but not sure if it’s permissible. Now I tell him beforehand that he has to leave quickly or he won’t be going there again any time soon. Sometimes the promise of a “good-bye treat” helps get things moving.

When speaking of our children’s friendship issues, we can’t help but speak about ourselves. Because we are so intertwined with our children, these dilemmas are often as much a reflection of us as them. Separating out what your child needs to know about relationship behavior, and what you need to do as a parent, is really what’s at the heart of the matter. But no matter how involved or hands-off a parent you are, teaching your child common courtesy will go a long way.