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Can I Still Pick My Kid's Friends?

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I had a "bad" friend in the 8th grade. Cami was not particularly interested in school, made no effort to talk to grown-ups, invited me into her teenage cousin's convertible Cabriolet where we hung our torsos over the sides and careened around Santa Monica, and hosted sleepovers with absent parents and lots of her older brothers' friends who smoked pot in the next room.

My parents never forbid me to spend time with Cami, or even discouraged it. But I do remember one comment my dad made when her name came up: "I don’t get it."

It stuck with me, because neither of my parents had ever passed judgment on any of my friends before. My father didn’t understand Cami's appeal, but how could he? He also didn't understand the big deal over Adam Ant or Howard Jones.

Cut to decades later: My son is a mere 4th grader, and yet I feel the need to express my opinion about everyone who enters his world, however peripherally. "Oooo, that’s rude," I'll say. Or, "Maybe you should spend time with someone else." The other day, after I noticed another boy steal a basketball away from Eddie and run off with it, I became irate, chased the boy down and made him give it back. Later I said to Eddie, "You're old enough now that you can choose your friends. You don't have to hang out with someone just because he's in your class." To which Eddie responded, "But I choose him."

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I told my husband that story later, and he didn't like the sound of the incident, but said, "Boys do that stuff. I remember holding a sharpened pencil upright on Brian's chair in the 2nd grade so he would sit on it. It went straight into his butt and he rolled over screaming." As Brian's mother, I would have flown into a rage and never let him associate with that boy again. Not only is Brian my husband's best friend to this day, I married the little twerp.

So does this mean we as parents stand by while our kids hang out with friends who are sometimes rude, arrogant and disrespectful of adults?

Developmentally, the experts tell us, 4th grade marks the beginning of the "tween" years; when many of our children start to pull away from parents, become more private and independent, confront the notion of mortality, encounter the onset of puberty and question authority. For the first time they begin to value their peers, in many ways, above their families. Crap!

So does this mean we as parents stand by while our kids hang out with friends who are sometimes rude, arrogant and disrespectful of adults? Kids who eat loads of junk food, talk incessantly about video games, introduce swear words, manipulate, lie, boast competitively and belittle others in insidious ways?

If the answer is no, what on earth are we supposed to do? Discipline the child (if that child happens to be in our home or car)? C’mon, mom, that is soooooo embarrassing! Talk to the parent? We all know the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Reinforce our own values to our kid? The best option yet, but one we know could backfire when you attack the offending kid: If Mom is going to get all lecture-y when I tell her about something Ryan did, I just won't tell her anything anymore.

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I've done all of the above, and I can't say any of my precautions have had the intoxicating pull of, say, a charismatic 10-year-old with a floppy haircut, a pair of awesome Nike Elites and a basketball.

My husband says you can't choose your kid's friends. Psychologist Alvin Rosenfeld, a lecturer at Harvard medical school and author of The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, agrees. I interviewed Dr. Rosenfeld a few years ago about a similar topic, and he said something that stuck with me: "We can’t be better authors of our kids' lives than they can be of their own. I've been friends my whole life with people my parents didn't approve of. [Children] are better judges of who suits them than we are."

My immediate reaction to that is, "Even if their friends are douchebags?" Unfortunately, even then, I think the answer is yes. My kids are going to choose people and interests that I just don't get. But I don't have to.

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