If you ever need a friend, introduce yourself to a kid. Unguarded, transparent, and loyal, kids collect pals like pennies.
You never see toddlers nix a friendship over political ideology, or renounce a terrific rapport just because their buddy has a nicer lunchbox and it makes them feel bad about themselves. Their only requirements for friendship: proximity and a grin. And a pile of goldfish crackers doesn’t hurt.
This is a remarkable character trait. Beautiful, really. Until the unchoosy little chums force it on their picky, prickly parents, and then it’s annoying as hell.
Have you ever been thrust unwillingly into crony-hood with other parents simply because your kids are friends? Forced to play nice with a mom you can’t stand—to meet for play dates, chat in schoolyards, attend awkward barbecues—because your children can’t bear to be apart?
It’s irksome. Adults are far more fastidious about investing in friendships. We’re lazier, less patient, more close-minded, but …
“It’s hard to give up valuable time to people who drive you nuts,” explains a mom I know who’s experiencing this now. “I have nothing in common with this woman other than our daughters being friends, and she is so irritating, it’s hard to tolerate more than five minutes of her.”
My boys once had friends whose dad would invite us all over, get slurry-tongued drunk, and hit on me. Then hit on my husband. We stopped going, and the kids grew apart. What are you gonna do?
When they’re babies, we choose our kids’ friends for them: We hook up with parents we like, set the squirts on a play mat together, and watch them bonk each other in the face with teething rings while we commiserate over the stench of diaper cream. Simple. Everyone’s happy.
But the climate changes when they begin making their own alliances.
“I have a list in my head of who’s high-maintenance and who’s easy-going,” says another mom I know. “When my son or daughters ask about inviting people over, I wonder, will I have to clean my house from top to bottom? Can I have a glass of wine in front of the parents? Will the afternoon turn into a church sermon?”
A grandma I know says this problem is a sign of the times: “Back in my day, you sent the kids out the door on their bikes and you never knew who they played with. Unless they came back bloody, you never talked to another kid’s parent.”
If that sounds antisocial, then you’ve never found yourself sitting in someone’s Thomas Kinkade-drenched living room with pork rinds on your breath watching a slide show of their family trip to Branson, Missouri. If I had a shortage of friends, I might be willing to characterize such an experience as “colorful.” But I don’t. So I consider it “intolerably weird.”
Los Angeles psychologist Ramani Durvasula assures me that we needn’t be besties with Junior’s pals’ parents. “Parents sacrifice enough in the name of parenthood,” says the single mother of two. “Giving up one more brick of sanity by forcing friendships with people to whom we would typically not have two words to say isn’t worth it.”
Amen, sister. But we do have some obligations, she says: “Show them respect, if for no other reason than to model to your child how to interact with another human being.” And of course, “Don’t talk smack about other parents in front of your kids.”
With careful planning (i.e., “Feel free to drop Piper off here at noon, and I’ll bring her back at 3”), we can allow our kids to hang out without subjecting ourselves to dullards. For now, at least.
“My oldest daughter just began dating a boy, and I’m thankful that I like his parents,” says one mom of three—“although I’m sure this won’t always be the case. Our next logical step will be in-laws. I shudder at the thought.”