K. is my daughter’s best friend. She has flaming red hair and a wicked smile—not my daughter, of course, the friend. My daughter, who is 5, is sweet and perfect, or nearly so, while her friend, also 5, has achieved a position of such pure alpha in the world of chums that you can almost hear her howl. K. comes over to our house, grabs my daughter by her lovely wrist, and hauls her off to play dog and owner—and guess who the dog is. The other day, I found my daughter eating kibble with a collar around her neck, K. standing over her. I hate K., and then I hate myself for hating her, because she’s only a baby, for God’s sake. She’s just a child—but so was Cain, and he murdered Abel.
When you have a child, you are not just having a child. You are having an entire social circle. You are giving birth to an eternity of play dates. As soon as your kid hits 2, maybe 3, right up until she finally leaves home, the house is filled with friends, most of whom you will like, but one of whom you won’t. In this situation, you have to struggle hard against your impulses, which suddenly reveal themselves in all their ugliness. What you can’t do: taunt the hated child, or otherwise treat her unfairly. No. You have to remain an adult, even as you watch, with some amusement and dismay, your own tiny demon emerge. You must act within your age range, hard though that might be.
Of course, you could make it easier on yourself and simply forbid the disliked one from coming over—but chances are, she’ll be a best best friend. The great psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan believed that childhood friendships are an essential part of a person’s development. Within the boundaries of these friendships, Sullivan thought, children learn give-and-take, mine and yours, self and other. Friendships are the one area where otherwise powerless children have the chance to make choices, even if they choose not to choose.
You can talk to your kid. You can say, “When someone tells you to do something, feel free to say no.” You can be still more direct: “Don’t let So-and-so boss you around.” But you may find that these conversations do not really ease your discomfort. Long gone, the bad friend lingers in your mind, darts between the furniture, dances in the dark. She is not so easy to shake.
One day, when K. was over, they played “having babies.” This involved my daughter’s lying on the floor while K. slashed her stomach with a red Magic Marker and then pulled a plastic doll from the fake wound. Apparently, my child was having a Cesarean.
I sat on the couch and watched. K., having delivered the doll, drew idly on my daughter’s stomach. I could see the scarlet marker on her soap-white skin; I could see swirls and boxes. I could see my child lying there, letting it happen. And a terrible thought occurred: Maybe it wasn’t K. whom I hated. Maybe it was my daughter. By this, I mean maybe I disliked who my daughter became when she was with K.
You can ask yourself the same question: Which child really bothers you, theirs or yours? And it’s likely that, if you really shoot straight, it’s yours. With that friend, your kid does drugs or turns passive or skips school. Your kid. And if it is your child who is the problem, then what are you not doing as a parent? Or, to put it positively, what could you do?
Suddenly, the disliked friend turns into a teaching opportunity. Suddenly, the disliked friend is a lens through which you see, magnified 5,000 times, the flaws and rents in the fabric you have woven. You should be thankful to her; she is an excellent lens. She is revelatory. And all change starts with revelation, does it not? Invite the friend over. Welcome her into your home.