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"Bad Friends"
Interactive Parenting Column #59
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Chicago Community Kollel

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Rabbi Horowitz:

My husband and I are in a quandary regarding our fourteen-year-old son. He has always been a respectful child; at home and in school, but he had an independent (rebellious) streak that was always beneath the surface.

Now that he is getting into his teenage years, he is hanging out with a group of friends that have us very worried. He’s starting to hang out with them on the weekends and is picking up bad habits from them.

Every time that we discuss his friends with him in a negative way, he gets defensive and we wind up getting into a quarrel.

Any ideas?


Rabbi Horowitz Responds

About ten summers ago, I did an informal survey of approximately 95 young men in their late teens, where I encouraged them, among other things, to engage in a role reversal of sorts. I asked them how they would advise parents to deal with the most common issues related to teenage boys: violating curfew, sleeping late, having ‘bad friends,’ speaking in a disrespectful manner, not davening properly (or not davening at all), on and on. I found the survey to be quite eye-opening and actually gained quite a bit of insight into the teen mindset from the study. All in all, the kids had pretty good advice to share on many of the issues noted above.

However, when it came to the issue of ‘bad friends,’ I drew a blank with the vast majority of the boys. They simply had no answers for parents who wanted to separate their teens from bad friends. It was also interesting to note, that in the same questionnaire, when I asked the boys to list the greatest challenges that teens face, nearly all of them selected ‘bad friends’ as a primary risk factor. So there you have it. The teenagers acknowledge that having bad friends is an enormous risk factor, but had virtually no advice to share with parents on how to separate the kids from these poor influences.

“Don’t (or try not to) take away something that you can’t replace,” is something I often tell parents. Understand that the reason that it is so difficult to remove your son from ‘bad friends’ is because you are really not in the position to replace what you wish to take away. If you are unhappy with the food your son wants to eat or the venue where he wants to spend a vacation day, you are in a position to offer alternatives – which is always a wise thing to do. Even in the arena of friends, when your child was younger, it was much easier to steer him to good friends and away from boys you think are not good for him, by arranging play dates with those objectives in mind.

However, during his volatile and vulnerable teen years, your son desperately need close friends; people to talk to and confide in. And at this stage in his life, you are rarely in the position to help nurture his friendships. With that in mind, you would be well served to tread very carefully before you break up friendships, because you may engender your child’s resentment and smoldering anger for having separated him from a potential ‘best friend.’

Here are some practical pointers and tips:

• Please keep reminding yourself not to take any of this personally. It’s not about you. It’s about his maturation and development. Don’t feel hurt, rejected, or even jealous that he would rather spend time with his friends that with you. As we say in Hebrew, “Zeh ha’chayim” – this is the way of life. It is all a bittersweet part of your son’s travels from your home to adult life. Even though it is often difficult to do, keeping your emotions at least partially in check will help you make wiser decisions.

• Always remember that you are still their moral compass. Their friends may affect the clothes they wear, their mannerisms, and the music they prefer. But in the deeper realm of values, parents still dominate – by far. Research studies keep reaffirming that point; that parenting matters. You haven’t lost your influence. Be sure you are exercising it wisely and tactfully.

• Never, ever insult or put down your son’s friends. Don’t label them and don’t call them names. You are setting yourself up for a disaster if you go down that road. First of all, it will not help you achieve any of your goals by doing that. In fact, it will probably set you back. Additionally, in all likelihood, your son will repeat the negative things you said to his friend and you will have earned an enemy at a time when you need every friend that you can get. You are far better saying things like “I’m not judging ___, but I’ve noticed that since you’ve been spending time with him, your grades have been slipping. Is there anything you’d like to discuss with me?” Again, keep reminding yourself not to allow things to get personal.

• Although you (correctly) worry that your son’s friends are a bad influence on him, keep in mind that the truth is frequently neither black nor white, but rather various shades of gray. There is rarely one ‘bad’ kid and one ‘good’ kid. It may be that certain children help bring out some latent negative potential in your son but they probably did not create it. It has happened on several occasions that I got two calls in the same week from two people in the same neighborhood – each complaining about each other’s teenage boys and their reciprocal negative influence! In fact, sometimes, it is often the very kids that you are worried about may be holding your son back from dangerous and risky activities.

• Meet your son’s friends. It may ease your fears, or at least allow you to get a better handle on things. How do you facilitate this? You can do this by encouraging your son to bring his friends over to your home. If you are worried about the influence this might have on your other children, take your son to dinner in a restaurant for his birthday and tell him to invite a few of his closest friends. Instead of the all too common (and all too unsuccessful) strategy of pushing the “bad” friends away, bring them closer. It will help your relationship with your son and help you help him.

• Unfortunately you may come across a situation where your son’s friends really are a destructive influence; and his friends endanger his physical or spiritual health. If that is the case, you should exercise your ‘veto power’ as parents and terminate the friendship. But only do so if you are confident that your relationship with your son will survive this bump. Be firm but supportive and loving, and try to assist him in creating opportunities to make new relationships.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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