explorations of mindful fatherhood

My Son’s Just Not That Into Yours


kids arguing

My question is this: When should we as parents intervene at the parent-to-parent level, and when should we simply coach our kids to navigate their own relationships?

My neighbor is such a pain that I’ve considered dedicating a separate blog to my conflicts with him. Instead, I hold back and relegate a few choice posts to our ongoing feuds. The latest conversation with him was an interesting mix of land disputes, fatherhood, and childhood friendship.

The guy next door was in a tizzy about the way I raked my leaves, and started bullying me about how I had to remove them from a certain wooded area of my lot, sending me emails citing town ordinances. After I corrected his misinterpretation of the law, he explained that his beef had more to do with “unresolved issues” than it did with the leaves, so he invited a conversation.

Turned out he was concerned about the disintegration of his son’s relationship with my son. My son hadn’t played with his son since the beginning of the summer, and my neighbor felt as though I had turned my son away from his. The back-story is that his son and mine played together for about a year. His son is a little socially awkward and a bit of a trouble-maker. He would frequently refuse to go home when his parents asked for him or would ignore my or my wife’s redirections if he was breaking our house rules. Nothing too egregious, to the point of us having a sit-down with parents, but enough to be annoying. The kid also had a butt fascination, frequently trying to hit people in their’s during light sabre battles, ramming his head into my wife’s butt, and investigating the butts of our pets. Simply put, he’s a little weird.

After a while, we made sure that the boys were always in sight so that we could monitor a bit more closely. My son is the perpetual rule-follower, so he tends to steer clear of anyone in violation of the rules. By the beginning of the summer, he was pulling away, frequently putting the kid off when he showed up at our door, suggesting they play after lunch or the next day. When the kid showed up again, my son would decline a second time.

Finally, we sat our son down and asked why he didn’t want to play anymore. “I’m burnt out,” was his reply, as though he was some mid-life professional discussing a career change. We told him that he needed to be upfront with his friend; if he wanted to take break, then he should tell him that. Afterwards, he successfully had a conversation with the boy, saying he wanted “to take a break from play-dates over the summer.”  The kid got it, and stayed away…

…until the end of the summer, when re was ringing our doorbell again.  My son turned him away a few times, and the kid finally stopped coming over.

So when my neighbor sat me down, he was in a huff that we hadn’t shown him the respect of letting him know that my son didn’t want to play with his. He felt it was unfair for him as a parent to keep sending his son over to our house, only to set him up for rejection. I could empathize with that experience, and kind of felt badly. But the question arose: How much should we as parents intervene at the parent-to-parent level, and how much should we help our kids navigate their own relationships?

In this particular situation, there wasn’t anything bad enough that prompted us to intervene directly in the boys’ relationship. There wasn’t outright bullying or even arguments, there wasn’t meanness or cruelty or even terrible violations of rules. In most of those cases, my wife or I would have likely stepped in or approached a parent. This was just the whittling away of a relationship based on a poor fit. My son didn’t want to play much anymore and couldn’t articulate a specific reason. I’m left to assume that the two just didn’t click, and perhaps even that my son thought that the other boy was a bit odd or maybe a trouble-maker.

What would I have said to the other parents in that case?  “My son just isn’t that into yours?”  “My son thinks your kid’s kind of a trouble-maker”  “Don’t send your kid over anymore because he’s a bit odd?”  I can’t fathom what I would have said. Plus, this wasn’t an abrupt thing. Just like adults can, these kids had drifted apart over time, and there wasn’t any specific marker that indicated to me that I should really go talk to the parent.

In the end, my neighbor made me feel like a bad parent. As though I hadn’t been thoughtful enough as a parent to step in and say something to my son’s friend’s dad. I felt this guilty tailspin. Had I mis-stepped? Would a “good” parent have done something different? I started resenting this other parent for his judgments, especially if he hadn’t been following his own advice, which smacked of hippocracy. If he had wanted to have a conversation about things as the relationship was having a part, then that responsibility fell upon him. Plus the added accusation of me “turning my son against his” was over the top.

In the end, it’s about deciding the line for ourselves. At times, kids need to navigate their own relationships, which can be confusing. Our job as parents in this case was to help our son be clear with his friend and draw a line for himself. I think that in the long run, this was the best decision. I will be there as a mediator when needed, but certainly a cautious, strategic one.

Author: CJ Nigh

I am an East Coast writer with a Midwestern soul. Undead Dad is a blog about mindful fatherhood in the deadening age of hyper-technology and over-work. I also write science fiction for young adults.

8 thoughts on “My Son’s Just Not That Into Yours

  1. This is such a tough one. I know too many friends who have had major fallings out over how their kids treat each other. The kids are most often just being kids but the parents cannot seem to see how their offspring behave and throw blame at anyone and everyone but their own. I often think the adults are acting in a more childish way than the kids…

    I’m with you on letting the youngsters sort themselves out, with parents supporting at home but not getting directly involved unless the issue is major.

  2. i think too many times the parents do get involved. If there is no meanness, bullying etc going on I agree that letting them sort it out is best. Don’t beat yourself up about it, as I always say, there is no manual for being a parent, you simply do what you feel is best in any given situation, sometimes you are right, sometimes not, but you always learn from the experience and move on…

  3. Interesting situation. I’m impressed all round with everyone’s self-reflection & communication, & I think you’re doing a fine job. Perhaps you could have lightly said over the back fence ‘I think my son’s drifting away from yours…’, but it doesn’t sound like you had that easy a connection with the other Dad? Your priority is to back up your son; some other kids ARE a bit weird; shit happens… Such is life. The boys will be ok 🙂

  4. In enjoy reading your blog – though it always seems like it is a week after the fact – my fault, not yours. I enjoy it because you expose your feelings about what is happening in your life and wondering where you stand… it is always fresh and begs the question that we all ponder, in one way or another, Am I being a good person? Friendships are a touchy issue, especially male friendships. Men are odd, we have a neighbor whose kids are grown and gone and he has forgotten what it was like to be a kid – and what his kids did on the hill between our homes. It centers on snow and one half of the hill is the top and mine and the other half is the bottom and mine… we’ve sledded it for years and then last year we had an encounter similar to yours…. take the high road, there are fewer people there, less traffic AND you can always count on it being what the better person would have done. Have a great holiday season – and enjoy the time with you family.

    • Clay, I’m a slow bastard when it comes to responding to comments, but yours are always some of the most thoughtful. Thanks so much for your sincere thoughts. I have to aspire to the high road, but sometimes get stuck in the muck. In fact, my blog has devolved into mud slinging at times, which I’m not too happy about. Thanks for sticking with me and reading. CJ

  5. As an adult with absolutely no children, I think that teaching your kid to be able to successfully say no dude, I don’t want to play with you because you are weird/crazy/butt-loving/socially bad is a very important life lesson to learn. So good on you for having him navigate that. Because when hes 30, and that same weird butt obsessed child is knocking on his door and blowing up his Iphone, He can successfully detour that individual…. instead of laying on the floor waiting for the knocking to stop…. How do I make the knocking stop?

  6. CJ–so glad I have not had to deal with this–yet. I think you handled it as best you could. This situation seems to have more to do with proximity than parenting. Kids change friends more than they change their underwear. It just stinks that this kid lives right next door. Trust your instincts as a dad and a neighbor.

    Hang in there. BTW, does your neighbor know about your blog?

    • Hey DG, No, he doesn’t know about the blog and I hope it stays that way. If he were to know, we might go full-blown Hatfields and McCoys over here. Thanks for the comment, and for the vote of confidence about the way I handled things! CJ

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