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Why You Shouldn't Pick Your Kids' Friends

When I was in the 8th grade, I invited a new friend over to the house. I didn't know her very well at all—that was kind of the point of inviting her over—but she was in my math class and seemed to strike the right balance of smart and nice. She was also cool, with her unilateral haircut (chin-length bob on the left, super short fade cut on the right) that embraced everything I knew to be edgy in the early 1980s. I wanted her to be my friend.

She rang my doorbell, and my mom and I were side-by-side when the door swung open. There stood Bridget, wearing painter's style jeans, a top with way too much shoulder action and a face full of makeup. Uh-oh. Maybe she was a little too cool. My mom didn't say much to me or to Bridget, but somehow the plan was changed before it ever started and suddenly Bridget's mom, who was just about to drive away for her afternoon of freedom, found her daughter right back in the passenger's seat. Game over.

I finally understand the mama bear instinct that profoundly interfered (not just once, mind you) with my social life when I was growing up.

My mom and I still laugh about how she booted Bridget out the door, because it is a shining example of my mom's lack of judgment—or, to be more fair, of any person's inability to judge a book by its cover. Yes, Bridget looked the part of the bad influence. But she went on to become a neurologist. A doctor. She and I ultimately wound up at precisely the same end point. Way back when, my mom had terminated any chance we might ever become friends simply because she was wearing makeup. And in my mom's brain, girls who wore makeup in the eighth grade were fast, fast at everything. So being friends with Bridget just wasn't going to happen because I wasn't going to turn out anything like Bridget was going to turn out. Ironic, right? Yet to this day, my mom still has no apologies that she got Bridget totally wrong, defending herself with the claim that she was protecting me.

Thirty years later, history is repeating itself. Sort of. While I would certainly never terminate a play date before it even got started based on what a kid was wearing, I have been guilty of trying to make friendships happen. I finally understand the mama bear instinct that profoundly interfered (not just once, mind you) with my social life when I was growing up. I get how my mom thought she knew who would be best suited for me and whom I should steer clear of.

And just like my mom, I am wrong almost every time.

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One year, I decided that my daughter needed to befriend a girl because they were both prolific readers. Reading, I was sure, was a proxy for kindness and gentleness and late blooming. I worked pretty hard at making the match, a task made harder because the kids attended different schools, but my persistence paid off.

Within a few months, they were spending as much free time together as possible. All was going great until I realized that the bookworm I had wooed into my daughter's life was the source of all of the new bad words that were popping up around the house. Not to mention that she became an inspiration for defying authority. She taught my daughter—and her brother—how to say "No" with their arms crossed, and then how to turn on their heels and storm out of a room because the conversation was over. Let's just say it took a while to un-ring that bell.

I have been dead wrong with my son, too. Competitiveness rears its head among young boys, which I think is largely encouraged by parents who are trying to breed mini professional athletes. Along with this comes aggression and even shades of bullying. So I set my sights on a boy who was clearly the sensitive kid. He was good at sports, or good enough, but he loved LEGOs and chess and his mother, too. What better boy to have around our house?

Little did I know that I had found the Tweety Bird of our neighborhood. When parents were watching, he was sweet and gentle. But left alone with his peers, he stirred the pot in order to antagonize the Sylvesters in the group. He wasn't overtly bad in any way, but rather coy and subtle in his subversion. This modeling, it turns out, was probably worse than exposure to typical bad-boy antics, because it taught my son how to be just naughty enough without getting caught. How to fly under the bad boy radar. Months later, I think we have finally unwound that ball of thread.

There is a lot of talk these days about over-parenting and its badness. I wholeheartedly agree. But steering your kids' choice of friends is one area of over-parenting that we often leave uncriticized because we think we are doing them some sort of favor. I, for one, have learned my lesson. I remember the overwhelming feelings of embarrassment and anger when Bridget got the boot. But now that I am on the other side of the equation, I understand it in a completely different way: It's one thing to separate my kid from a bad influence, but it's another to assume you know what the influence will be in the first place. I am no better at picking friends for my kids than they are. I may even be worse.

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