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What do you do when your kid rejects a friend?

By Alice Bradley

There comes an uncomfortable turning point in the parent/child relationship when the child realizes that he has opinions about whom he wants to befriend, and that his opinions do not necessarily jibe with his parents’. Usually, or at least over here in New Jersey (in our house, to be precise), this takes the form of rejecting previously acceptable friends. (We haven’t yet encountered the problem of Henry bringing home a shady character. So few preschoolers drink or smoke, these days.)
To some extent, of course, these children of ours have had opinions about things right from the beginning. For instance:
Parent: “Hey, newborn. We think you should go to sleep now.”
Newborn: “No.”
This continues as they develop:
Baby: “I’m hungry.”
Parent: “I fed you ten minutes ago.”
Baby: “Let me repeat myself, except louder.”
But when it comes to friendships, babies and toddlers don’t really have an emotional investment. Thus, they happily allow you to tote them around to playdates that are more for your benefit than theirs.
Until the day comes when your child notices the kid playing next to him, and decides that this friend you’ve chosen for him is not the kind of friend he wishes to have. The day that your child thinks, hmm, she’s getting a lot out of this playdate, with her tea-drinking and chortling over there with her buddy, and meanwhile I’m stuck with a mouth-breather who doesn’t know a Lego from a Lincoln Log.
(No offense to mouth-breathers, whom we count among our friends. Most of the children we know are incapable of getting any air through their perpetually clogged nasal passages. But I digress.)
This has been happening increasingly over here, which is why I chose to write about it. It’s Shameless Self-Interest Day, didn’t you know? Please make a note in your calendars. Anyway, yes, Henry has been refusing to see certain friends and classmates in his free time, and I’m conflicted about how to deal with it. On the one hand, he has the right to be friends with whomever he wishes (within reason—I cannot and will not invite Batman over); on the other hand, I want him to be tolerant and kind; on the third hand, sometimes he has to suck it up, because we want to see our friends, too.
I try not to make too much of it when Henry decides to nix a playdate. Usually these rejections are meaningless or short-lived. Sometimes there’s a simple reason he doesn’t want to set foot in the kid’s house, like the other kid is an enthusiastic hugger and Henry would rather enjoy a more low-key greeting. One phone call can ensure that she keeps her mitts off my boy. Other times he’s just being contrary, or a jerk. These moods can shift within minutes, so I move on to another topic, and usually the next time the playdate idea comes up, he’s more than agreeable.
Sometimes, though, sometimes he just refuses to hang out with the other kid, just plain won’t go. And then I’m put in the position of having to tell the parent. Recently I had to tell a woman I was really hoping to befriend that my child wouldn’t hang out with her kid. Not just one time—ever. He would never have a playdate with this boy. Why? He wouldn’t say. He just didn’t feel like it. There were many discussions. Henry stood firm. There were other friends, he said, he wanted to make time for. That’s a feeling, frankly, I can understand. What could I say? I had to try and make light of it to the mother.Ha ha! Crazy kids! With their, um, rejecting of your beloved!
I haven’t heard from her since. Oops.
I didn’t see any evidence that he was being cruel or superficial in his decision not to make this particular friend (the other child has plenty of friends, and is frankly a little bit cooler than my kid, shh, don’t tell him I said so) but still, I would have preferred that he had given the boy a chance. I want him to learn to be kind and generous, especially to someone who extends an invitation of friendship. But he is only five, after all. Lecturing him on the importance of kindness and generosity, at this stage, wouldn’t make an impact. So meanwhile Scott and I try our best to be relatively okay role models, and hope he gets the message, eventually. But if he had rejected a kid who really needed a friend, what would we have done then? Probably resorted to lectures. And threats. I might need a better plan.
So I turn to you, my Internet family: have your kids rejected another, and how did you deal with it? Did you put your foot down? Is it your kid’s business and your kid’s business alone whom they befriend?

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • NewfieldMama

    May 30, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    My six year old has been both rejector and rejectee in this scenario. Once, he refused to play with our neighbor’s son right in front of the other child! Boy were we embarrassed. In that situation, I pulled my son aside for a little heart to heart about tolerance and sharing. We discussed his reasons for his actions and how he would feel if the situation was reversed. He was very open to our frank discussion and made the decision to change his mind after much consideration. After our talk, he immediately apologized and started playing with the other child. They are pretty good friends now.
    Now, this isn’t appropriate in all situations. My son refuses to play or respect peers that have rejected or made fun of him in the past. He’s not always forthcoming in these situations; it usually takes a little coaxing. In these instances, I think its more important to talk about his feelings and how he can avoid treating others negatively. It is important that I teach my son how to overcome negativity and to avoid being part of that annoying school years cycle.

  • A

    May 30, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    I don’t have kids (i’m too young!) but i have a handful of little siblings (ranging from 5- 13 yrs old). My 5 yr old brother just started school this year and he talks about some of his classmates all the time…but he stays away from some because he “doesn’t like them.” At a young age, rationality doesn’t seem to set in, obviously, so if he says he doesn’t like them its more than likely for reasons HE doesn’t even know how to explain…
    Of course, some of my other siblings, particularily the oldest ones, make and break friendships on a daily basis. If they want to talk about it they will, or else they will deal with it alone or with other friends…
    but seeing as Henry is only 5, the same age as my little brother, I think there is nothing wrong with letting him choose his little buddies. You know kids, maybe on Tuesday he doesn’t like little John but on Wednesday he wants nothing more than to play trucks with him! I figure as long as hes not being too mean or rude about it, why shouldn’t he be able to pick his own friends? We do!

  • Andrea

    May 30, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    My oldest is nearly 5, so the fun has only begun in our world. To be honest, *I’ve* been feeling like the rejector of late. My son has a friend — who happens to be the son of one of my friends — who pushes his buttons like no one else can. He is the only kid I know who can reduce my son to tears. It drives me nuts. My son has another friend — also the son of one of my friends… which makes me think I need to broaden my social circle a little — who kind of freaks me out with his aggression.
    Part of me wants to be over-protective, while the other part wants to allow my son to be independent. We talk a lot about being a “good friend.” The golden rule, I guess. But if someone else isn’t playing nicely, my son knows he can tell the other kid to stop, or he can ultimately choose to play with someone else.
    I’m sure our roles will change, and my son will have his own opinions about who he invites for a play date. But I’m hoping the “be a good friend” lesson will carry us for a while.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    May 30, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    As always, it depends…but I don’t think I have ever told another mom that my kid doesn’t want to play with her kid. I’ll make some other excuse and gradually wiggle out of any getting-together obligations. Or, if she and I really want to get together during the day, I’ll arrange we meet somewhere like a playground, where the kids can play separately or with other kids there.
    In one situation, a good friend of mine’s oldest was an insufferable pain in the neck and my children hated playing with him; yet she was in the habit of dropping by the house with her kids. So (and I admit, this was a very low moment in my parenting career), I paid my son to play with him. A quarter a game. Some folks may be irate at this and say that I should have taught my son to be tolerant, etc. But, really, no child should have had to put up with this kid. And there was no telling my friend that, believe me. I broached it once, in a kind way, and it was a very bad scene.
    Side note: no parent ever wants to hear anything negative about their kid, no matter how justified the complaint is. Just don’t go there.
    Anyway, the boys are teens now and rarely see each other, and when they do they are civil (and, no, I’m not still paying my son) and (most important) I still have a friend. So it was worth the money I shelled out. The End.

  • ohkwarimama

    May 30, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    SO the rule we have is the same for people as it is for food: You don’t know if you like something until you’ve tried it.
    Seriously, unless the kid is violent or wipes boogies on other children, my son can and should play with them when the opportunity arises. I’m a big fan of letting kids sort things out amongst themselves, they can talk to each other about why one of them doesn’t want to play, maybe with help from an adult.
    I think the whole “you don’t have to go because you don’t want to” thing is a mighty slippery slope. It’s important to help our kids understand that they need to find out about people/things before judging and/or skipping out on them.

  • k

    May 30, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    I know this isn’t the place for this, but I always find myself on the wrong side of these discussions. What I mean is that my 3-year-old is the aggressive one that other kids don’t want to play with. It breaks my heart, and if we hadn’t moved I’m sure it would’ve cost me some friendships.
    I’m completely on top of him and have zero tolerance for pushing, swiping, clawing, but every time we’re with another kid, he does it. Time outs have yet to sink in. Often I’ll just make him leave. I guess I’m curious; is there anything I can do in these situations to salvage the playdate? Or do we really just have to isolate ourselves from other kids? How will he ever learn? But if the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t want my kid to be his guinea pig in learning how to play nice.

  • Fairly Odd Mother

    May 30, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    My daughter once asked me to call the mom of a friend who was due to come over for pizza. She said this friend picked on her for ‘talking too much’ and it made her feel bad. I wanted to respect her wishes and show her that I take her concerns seriously, so I called the mom and tried to make light of the situation. However, the mom then told me that the daughter had plans and couldn’t join us for pizza and that was the last I heard from them. In one way, I think that perhaps they weren’t a great match, but I wonder if I should have even gotten involved (my daughter is 7).

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    June 1, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Hey, “k”, there’s no link to you, so I’ll answer you here. You’re going through a tough time now, and I know it’s hard. A friend of mine went through that with her young daughter – very bright, impulsive, physical little girl. The first time she and my Anna played together (at a playground), she pushed Anna, which made a not very good impression on us.
    But the girl gradually grew and matured, and she is actually Anna’s best friend right now. The key in these situations is for the adults to be mature. If I’m in a situation with a “monster” kid, as long as the parent is on top of it, I really don’t mind – kids will be kids. The bad situations are when the parent refuses to acknowledge the bad behavior of their own child (like my other friend, whom I talk about in my first comment, did) and/or refuse to step in and stop their child from hitting or whatever. Just stay on top of it, make sure there is no underlying problem, and ride it out with a good sense of humor. Someday, your son will be civilized! And the people who are worth being friends with, will hang in there with you.

  • Ellen

    June 2, 2008 at 8:08 am

    “Be nice. Even if you don’t like someone you can still be nice.” I think this has sunk into my kids. And, looking back, there were some kids I liked and thought they would be nice friends for my kids, but found out from my kids (at a later time) that the other kids were not nice AT ALL, to the point of participating in illegal activities. Sometimes our kids have insider knowledge that we don’t have.

  • kylee

    June 2, 2008 at 11:15 am

    First, Alice, what if you made Henry call the friend or the friend’s mom and cancel? Would he think twice about it? Why should you have to do the dirty work?
    Second, K, I can totally empathize with you in many respects. I have three sons, and my 3 1/2 year old middle son is the impulsive, aggressive little boy who made it nearly impossible to go in public for a LONG time. And he is slowly getting better. One of the things that has helped is his recent diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder. His nervous system can’t handle sensory information like a typical nervous system, so he gets disoriented from certain stimuli. This causes him to act up, become aggressive, and just be a plain jerk sometimes. I think a lot of kids struggle with this, and most parents just see it as a personality flaw, a disagreeable kid, a “strong-willed” child, and impossible. It is a REAL thing, and there is amazing help for it.
    For me, understanding this part of him helps me understand how his brain works. And instead of being constantly annoyed/angered by and frustrated at him, I can now empathize with him and be a better mom for it.
    Hang in there, and keep having play dates. Keep on what you are doing: stay on top of his behavior during play dates, show him how to be gentle and role play situations with him, really reward him when things go well.
    Something (in the long list) that I regret with my son is that there were many times when I should have showed love rather than frustration & anger. A little love goes a long way. Even for you: don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t let other moms look at you the way they do. They don’t know your life or your son like you do! And if they can’t accept your son for who he is and how hard you are trying to make things work for him and your family, then they don’t seem like you want to have.
    And that is true for any play date. Put yourself in other people’s shoes….try to learn something about other people’s kids. Each little one is so unique; we can learn a lot from one another in our play dates, and so can our kids.
    Super long comment, sorry. Goodbye.

  • Magi

    June 2, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    As someone who was forced to go play with the neighbor boy when I was 5 and still remember the dreaded walk to his house 25 years later, I have to say I will NEVER do that to my child. I agree with Ellen, your kids know things you don’t. On the other hand, as the parent of 3 year old that remembers EVERYTHING we tell him I agree that going along with his wishes without making him play with the child at least once could become a very slippery slope.
    As far as talking to the other parent and telling them why, I think dread of that was what kept my Mother from letting me stay home, but I don’t think I would have the guts to do it either. Which leaves me with the option of avoidance till it stops coming up.

  • janny226

    June 3, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Last fall another mom in DuckyBoy’s kindergarten class and I hatched the bright idea that our boys should practice their socialization skills on each other with a weekly playdate. She and I clicked but the boys, hit-or-miss. The more we could leave them alone and not direct their play, the better they did.
    But then — my guy went through a phase of saying mean things to basically everyone around him. His responses to other children’s overtures of conversation to him were along the lines of “I don’t care,” “I already know thaaaat,” and the like. We adults could chastise him and move on, but for the kids? It was a turnoff, to the point that this other little guy told his mom he did NOT want to have the weekly playdate with DB.
    She was so embarrassed to call and tell me, but actually I was really proud of her son that he was able to articulate that he didn’t want to spend time with someone who didn’t treat him right.
    And my guy learned the lesson that if he’s not nice, other people won’t wanna play. And that’s a lesson I’d been trying to tell him for weeks.
    So maybe I’m strange, but I thought it was great. (Except for the part that my kid was being mean to other kids, which thankfully has subsided by now.)
    On the flip side, when my guy doesn’t want to play with another kid, uh… I think it would depend on the kid. A younger kid in our building, for example, idolizes DB so I’d probably make DB play with him at least a bit. A kid we’ll never see again at a random playground? Maybe Ok to say no. A kid we kinda know, or I know the parents? At least give it a shot!

  • lolismum

    June 4, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I don’t think you should push your child to play with someone he does not want to play with, if you like the parents, meet them on your own time, without the kids.
    I also think you should never tell another parent your kid does not want to play with their kid unless the other kid is really aggressive, bites, hits to hurt, pulls hair etc. Ever heard of a white lie? I am even a little shocked that you made a phone call to a parent so her daughter would not hug your son when she greets him? I think that’s totally inappropriate.
    The point is at some stage, every kid makes some other kid uncomfortable, or they just do not click. The parents should just deal with the situation maturely. Meet that parent alone, meet somewhere where the kids can play but necessarily with each other (i.e. a playground, a museum) and simply come up with regular excuses (Henry may be coming down with something, he is really tired and cranky today, we have to wait for a delivery, whatever) to detach without breaking people’s hearts.

  • Marnie

    June 5, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    I have been in this situation, and I think avoidance is absolutely appropriate, and here’s why: fickleness. I know my daughter isn’t alone in that she changes her mind on what she likes – her favorite color, foods, clothes – daily, if not hourly. She may not want to play with a friend this week, or longer, but who’s to say next month, or even next year, she won’t change her mind and decide they want to be best friends? If you’ve already burned the bridge with the parent, it’s going to make it awkward if not impossible to schedule those playdates your kid suddenly wants so badly with that other kid.

  • Maggie

    June 6, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Yeah, I’m going to have to agree with others who have said that it’s probably better not to tell the other parent outright that your kid doesn’t want to play with their kid. That would just be SO painful to hear as a mom, and why cause that pain if you could figure out some other way? Better to use the “we’re just really busy” excuse. Or tell Henry that you’re going to visit your friend, and he’s coming with you and should be polite to her son.
    Okay, so this sounds really assvicey and critical, and I LOVE YOU AND YOUR BLOG(S) AND YOU SEEM LIKE THE FUNNIEST, SWEETEST PERSON. Truly.

  • kim

    June 6, 2008 at 11:11 am

    I have been trying to figure this one out myself, and I’m glad that avoidance seems to be the accepted best method, because that’s been my way of not dealing with it so far. With my older daughter, now almost 9, it was a girl in her kindergarten class. On the last day of school, she gave all the kids little RSVP slips with our phone number so we could invite them to her birthday party during the summer. I got the first call at like 3pm that same day from a mother wanting to schedule a play date. I told her I’d have to check our schedules and get back with her, and found that my daughter really didn’t want to play with that particular girl.
    Avoidance eventually worked, but it took like TWO YEARS after they had moved out of our school district for the calls to stop. (Probably because I caved and felt bad for the kid after the birthday party and had her over to play a couple of times–but my daughter just didn’t have anything in common with her and she wound up following ME around.)
    My youngest daughter, 7, had a friend in kindergarten that she talked about often, usually in the context of how many new words she learned from this girl, and how smart she was. I was eager to encourage this friendship, because who doesn’t want their kids to have friends who teach them good things? Anyway, she had her over to play a couple of times, but the friend joined the big sister entourage, and was all about running and jumping and playing tag, while my youngest is more into Barbies and Littlest Pet Shop. So she never wants to have this girl over to play any more when I suggest it.
    The mother is really nice, and the little girl is amazing, but my daughter just doesn’t enjoy their play dates. I’ve been toying with the notion of letting the mom know what the deal is when she calls, so I’m glad I just read Marnie’s comment–maybe she’ll change her mind, so I shouldn’t burn any bridges. Meanwhile, I just pray that the other mom doesn’t think it’s a racial thing.
    (Wow, that’s long! Sorry!)

  • Tammy

    March 16, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Can somebody please give me some answers I do not know how to handle the situation my son is ADHD and my brother is in a relationship living at my parents house she just had a baby and her eight-year-old son always told my son that my mom said I cannot play with you and my son gets his feelings hurt last night his cousin was over there and my sister-in-law’s 8 year old son they both tag team him and said that we are not going to play with you 8 year old son said to my son my mom said we cannot play with each other what can I do in this situation also when she was pregnant I thought she was playing but now that I think about it I think she was serious my nephews and my son were messing with her playing around she told my son to stop it or I will knock you out I thought it was a joke but now that I think about it I think she was serious everytime I see her at my moms I say hello she does not respond back to me I think it’s because she does not like my husband maybe this is why she act like this