Need advice dealing with a difficult situation? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.
I have an 11-year-old kid — an only child — who struggles with making and keeping friends. Last summer, my kid bonded with a child who we like very much. But after several hostings on our part, this child’s family has never once invited my child to join them for anything, and assumes that we are paying for their child to be admitted to everything we do. Are we supposed to constantly ask the other family to pitch in for activities that cost money? And we’d appreciate it if they invited our kid out for something, but there’s never been a hint of that. Is there anything we can do?
Anonymous / Boston
I reached out to my friends with children for this question, to get the parental perspective — and to my surprise, they overwhelmingly looked to their own childhoods for the answer. A whole lot of them, it turns out, were “that kid” growing up. The one who didn’t have a house they could bring friends to, who didn’t have the kind of parents who could be asked for money. Those former kids are grown-ups now, and they are grateful and paying it forward. So, too, are the ones whose parents had the open door, who could invite friends over or bring them along and never worry.
Is paying for and hosting the other child causing you financial or other kinds of strain? If so, scale back however necessary to support the friendship over the long haul. Or is it more the principle of the thing, the sense that the other family should be reciprocating? If so, try to let it go. This kind of inequality in children’s friendships is a fact of life. Sometimes kids in bad home situations even go and live with friends for a while. Especially if your child has had a difficult time socially, be as inviting and generous as you can. It will be remembered. (Besides, paying for your kid’s friend’s movie ticket is probably still cheaper than paying by the hour for a social-skills building group.)
That said, I entirely get where you’re coming from, because I’d have a similar knee-jerk reaction. Not because of the money per se, but because I wouldn’t want my kid getting the idea that unbalanced, taker/giver relationships are a good thing in general. Obviously, the other kid can’t really help the lack of reciprocity around hosting and money; children don’t have their own money and cars and apartments, which is why I didn’t like being one. But is the relationship balanced in terms of emotional labor? Does the friend share and play fair? Are they emotionally supportive? Does the relationship make your child happy?
If so, don’t worry about the material inequities. And if you’re not sure of the answers — or even if you think you know — talk to your child about the friendship, and what they’re learning from it. So often we think we’re imparting Lesson X, and kids are actually picking up Subtext Y or Tangent Z instead.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.