Should You Interfere When Your Child Is Friends With the “bad Child”?

This week, a parenting question was posed to us from one of the most emotionally charged places on earth: the first grade recess playground.

The Worried Parent explains:

My son “Will”, who is in first grade, reported that he often has problems playing with “Jake.” From what Will tells me, Jake tends to act in class and then the teacher punishes him. It also sounds like Jake is domineering and may soon become a bully. Will reveals that Jake tells him what to do at recess and that Jake will kick him out of his “club” if he doesn’t agree with it. It also caused Jake to force my son to eat fallen leaves. The other day they both got into trouble, because during recess they wandered too far from the playground, and the teacher had to look for them. Obviously there are some security issues here.

What’s more, Will tells me that Jake can physically abuse other children. He clearly enjoys hitting and kicking girls. Will also told me that Jake walks around and says things like “50,000 deaths” and other disturbing things.

In closing, let me say that I understand that my son is not perfect. He really tends to copy and cling to other kids too much, and I try to work with him on that. I also know that he is kind of frivolous and very sensitive, so he succumbs to Jake’s demands. One thing I know for sure is that Will was never violent and never was violent to other kids like Jake. My wife and I worked very hard to instill a sense of kindness, and every time Will showed even a hint of physical aggression towards his sister, we quickly shut him down.

What are we doing here? We didn’t explicitly forbid Will from playing with Jake, but we talked a lot about how to make the right decisions. We also tried to make it clear that Jake is not his boss and that he can play what he likes during recess. Will told me that he doesn’t like playing with Jake, but finds it difficult to ignore him. We discussed this topic with the teacher, only mentioning that Will is easily nudged by others, and that we would appreciate it if she could help him assert himself if he seems to need it.

It sounds like a silly immature problem because it is. After all, we are talking about six-year-old children! I just don’t want Will to end up being branded as a bad kid or going down the wrong path early in his academic life.

-Worried parent

Dear parent,

You did find most of the solution in your question, but unfortunately this is not a quick fix – the emphasis should be on helping Will become better at making the right decisions. How do you do it ? Over time, with a lot of practice and examples.

The point is, it’s not about this particular child. There will always be Jake. In first grade, high school, at work … “Jakey” is around us. As we grow and mature, we (hopefully) learn to avoid them, how to lead more than to follow, and how to limit their impact on our lives. Because these Jakes make us feel bad, and we want to have people in our lives who make us feel good.

I reached out to Maureen Healy, an expert on children’s emotional health and author of The Emotionally Healthy Child; Helping children appease, to concentrate and to make a reasonable choice to ask her that Will can get from a relationship with Jake. She says it all comes down to connection.

“Kids want to feel connected,” says Healy. “And that friendship gives him some sense of kindness, some sense of connection … and there is probably a level of fear as well.”

This fear, Healy said, may be related to the problems associated with making new friends. If Jake stops being his friend, Will may worry that he won’t be able to find another. And while Jake doesn’t do him well – quite the opposite – a bad connection is better than no connection at all.

To teach him how to make better friendship choices, you can talk to him regularly about the interactions he has with his peers and how they make him feel. If he says he worked on an assignment with another classmate, ask him how it went and what it was like working with “John” or “Alissa.”

If he comes to you with a different story about Jake and eating leaves from the ground, ask him how he felt. Empathize with these feelings and discuss other options. For example, instead of eating a leaf, he might say, “No, this is disgusting, the leaves are not food,” he might invite them to join a kickball game or look around to see what John or Alyssa are playing. You can try role-playing some of these scenarios with him as you progress through them, so he can practice how a good choice looks, feels, and sounds.

Healy also invites you to give examples from your own life experiences of when you made a good or bad choice with a friend or acquaintance, how it made you feel, and what you want to be done differently. “Parents can save their lives and be sincere,” she says.

Finally, you can look for ways to help build other positive peer connections in his life. If there is someone else he likes to play with – a neighbor, a kid from an extracurricular activity, or a classmate with whom he mentioned sitting at lunch – set up a few play meetings for him. The more positive connections he has and the more practice he has to make the right choices, the easier it will be to resist Jake. It won’t happen overnight, but if you sign up, empathize and guide him, he will get there.

Do you have a parenting dilemma? Send your questions to with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line, and I’ll try to answer them here.


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