It’s Not All Mary Poppins


“Look at the friends!

There’s a woman in my neighbourhood who I see quite often as we stroll with our children. We never seem to be heading in the same direction, not for more than a block or so. I’m going to the park as she heads away from it, I’m heading down my street as she crosses the intersection to proceed down the street perpendicular to mine. And every time she sees us approach, it’s the same thing,

“Oh, guys! Look at all the friends!

Or, on occasion,

“Careful! You don’t want to bump into the friends!”
“Squeeze over, honey, and let the friends go by.”
“Don’t poke your stick at the friends, sweetie.”

“Friends”? Lady, we don’t even know you.

I understand why she does this, of course. She wants to engender a positive attitude to other children; she wants her children to see other children as potential playmates, not as threats. She wants her kids to lean into life with a smile of welcome, not a frown of suspicion.

(Not that she seems to be succeeding in her efforts. Her children almost always shove mine and/or menace them with sticks or aggressive roars. Rotten little cretins. Probably sick to death of having total strangers fobbed off on them as “friends”.)

I really, really don’t like it — the friend thing, I mean. It’s a bad idea on so many levels. First off, it’s insufferably patronizing. Why should agemates be automatic friends? When she’s out for a coffee with a girlfriend, does she enter the coffee shop, see a couple of tables of thirty-something women, and call out to the room at large, “Oh, Suzie! Look at all the friends in here!”

They’d be carting her off in a padded wagon in short order. Or at least muzzling her saccharine outbursts with stony faces and averted eyes. (“Don’t look up. The crazy “friend” woman just walked in”)

And she is so saccharine. Her voice just oozes ooey-gooey preciousness. Ick. I’ve managed, so far, not to sneer, but I can tell you the very last thing she’s engendering in me is any desire whatsoever to encourage friendships between her children and my tots. Because then I’d have to hang out with her. Ugh. That lilting, squeaky-happy voice. Those earnest, earnest mommy sentiments. The way she patronizes the kids, while at the same time letting them treat her with huge disrespect. Could I stand it? I could not. I’d be fighting the urge to beat her senseless with a sippy cup within moments.

On a more substantive level, do you really want your child thinking that everyone is a potential friend? No, you don’t want to encourage hostility, but a little social caution is only sensible. Firstly, with other kids: The children who do best socially are those who follow a consistent set of steps: they stand back and watch the other children play, then enter the game and do as they’re directed, and only after they’ve been accepted into the game do they attempt to direct the game themselves at all.

Children who skip steps one and/or two tend to be ostracized. If you are successful in teaching a child that everyone is automatically their friend, no breaking-in required, you will almost certainly create a child who is shunned by the others. A little counter-productive, no?

And with adults? It’s a sad fact of life, but not every adult out there is a child’s friend. Not every adult is benign. You absolutely do NOT want your child assuming every adult is a friend. That’s just plain dangerous.

You want your children to be open to friendship? Teach them how friendships are formed. Model open, friendly behaviour. But don’t set them up with false definitions and dangerous assumptions. Good heavens.

June 17, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. When I first read her words about “the friends,” I assumed she meant that your kids are all friends, not that her kids would be your kids’ friends. I figured she was using the word “friends” in place of another word like “siblings” or “kids.”

    That’s what I thought, too, the first time I heard her, but no, repeated contact has shown me that’s not how she’s defining it. It’s quite clear she means that any other child is to be considered a friend by her children.

    Comment by Clementine | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  2. i liked your steps for social interaction. my daughter (5yo) is an observer for sure! that’s where she gets stuck, though. she will wait and wait and wait until someone invites her to play (not very likely to happen in the 4 & 5 yo set, though!) and even then, she may not join in. this was a big point of conflict between her preschool teacher and me/my daughter. also, i never quite got it, though, until i read your post, why it irked me so much when other kids were so “friendly” when you’ve only just arrived at the park, library, etc.

    Those steps aren’t mine. I read them in a psychology text, I think, way back in teacher’s college, and they made so much sense, and fit so well with what I’d seen and experienced, that they’ve stuck with me. And yes, those people who just pile onto you with no transitional getting-to-know you shuffling: don’t they just make you want to shove them away? We don’t, because we’re grown-ups, but you can sure empathize with your two-year-old when she does the shoving… Even though you then have to tell her not to!

    Comment by dana | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  3. I thought the same as Clementine at first, too–but now I see what you mean. I always use “kids” or “children” if I want to keep my kids from hurting/bumping into/etc. other small children. “Watch out for the stroller with the baby.” That sort of thing.

    It bugs me too. Just like adults in my life who assume I will have my children address them as “Aunt” or “Uncle” even though we’re not related. You are not Uncle Kevin. You’re Dad’s friend from college.

    I always use a descriptor, too. “That little girl” will do nicely. We won’t presume relationships that haven’t been forged.

    If you’re not one to have children call adults by their first names, what do you call them? Mr. and Mrs. Dad’s Friend?

    Comment by Bridgett | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  4. I said something about my 4yo’s “friends at dance class” the other day and was quickly reminded that Alex isn’t her friend. At this age, she knows that some kids are friendly and others are not. So, I just told her “Ok, honey, but you still need to be polite. It would hurt her feelings if you told her that.”

    And Bridgett, I hate that too!

    Well, good for her to know who acts like a friend and who doesn’t. And good for you for reinforcing the social lesson of that: You don’t have to like someone, but you do have to be polite.” You have to respect people’s feelings — even the ones you don’t like a whole lot. A lot of adults don’t seem to have absorbed that lesson. It needs to be started early!

    Comment by ktjrdn | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  5. This is cracking me up. I can picture her well, with her squeaky happy voice totally oblivious to the fact her kids are brats…ewww.

    My son had a teacher like that in the second grade. He would complain that he was sick of her calling the kids that picked on him, his friends. She had that same squeaky happy voice. She drove us crazy.

    Your son was better able to tell a friend from a persecutor than the teacher. Just because you CALL them friends, honey, doesn’t MAKE them friends. Friendship, like respect, is earned.

    Comment by annie | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  6. Oh! When I first read that, I assumed she meant all YOUR kids were friends TOGETHER. Because yeah, they are other kids until proven more.

    I’m trying to teach Pumpkinpie to introduce herself to other kids properly, because right now, her opening gambit, once she convinces herself to move past hovering, is, “I’m four!” Thanks for the info, kid! So a, “What’s your name?” and supplying of her own is what I’m aiming for with kids.

    And ugh, hate the squeakies.

    So did I, but no, that’s not what she means.

    My kids used to come home from various events, saying that they’d made a new friend. “Oh, that’s nice? What’s his/her name?”

    Blank look. It seemed that a name was waaaay down on the priority list. They could rhyme off the games they played and the things they liked to eat, and whether they had pets … but a name? Pfft. So if they wanted a playdate, I was in the position of saying of an organizer “The child my child was playing with who has a pet parrot and a blue car.” Great. Learn the NAME, offspring of mine. Ask for a NAME.

    Comment by kittenpie | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  7. Hey, I used to do the “friend” thing too until I heard someone else do it and I almost gagged and puked. It might be ok with me if it didn’t have so much goo in it when it is said, lol.

    Makes you gag and puke, huh? I also see it as potentially dangerous to the child — certainly hurtful. Some kids (some adults) are just not friends. At all.

    Comment by Jerri Ann | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  8. I do it when I talk to my daughter about the other kids who come to my daycare, because I need her to be friends with them all even when she doesn’t feel like it. It makes for a difficult day if she refuses to think of them as her friends. I can see how it would be annoying to refer to strangers as friends though.

    I didn’t try to make my kids think of the daycare kids as friends. Some of them were, some of them just weren’t. That’s life. Besides, just because I arbitrarily labelled them friends wouldn’t make my kids feel any friendlier toward them, anyway. They’d still be in the position of having to behave appropriately to kids no matter what their feeling at that moment. And it’s an important lesson: you have to be respectful even of people you don’t consider friends.

    Comment by kelli in the mirror | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  9. Over the winter and spring I was taking my 3yo to Story Time at the library. The local Head-Start (pre-kindergarten) kids were coming, also. The teachers annoyed me to no end for many saccharine reasons, including calling all of the kids “friends” and having them address each other that way. Yeah, so maybe it was a little different because they all went to class together, but still, there were 20-some kids! And my kid and a couple other non-Head-Start kids didn’t know them at all. Agh! It drove me nuts.

    A shoe is not a rose just because you call it one. A bully is not a friend just because teacher says so. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, someone for whom “friend” is a valued label not readily awarded, but I find throwing the term about willy-nilly demeans the whole idea of what constitutes a friend. And it drives me nuts.

    Comment by rosie_kate | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  10. I tagged you for the most creative meme I’ve seen in the internet in a while. Please amuse me with your creative juices.

    Oh, that is cool. And difficult! I’ll have to think about it. Hmmm…

    Comment by Jerri Ann | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  11. Congrats on not punching your “friend”. That would be so annoying.

    I manage to be polite and respectful even to people who aren’t my friends. I’m special that way.

    Comment by Lis | June 18, 2008 | Reply

  12. beating her with a Sippy cup?

    please do. after reading about her, i was banging my head onto my keyboard.

    And btw, her male clone works in my office. Ugh.

    Male clone? Aren’t you the lucky one! There are far fewer men of this variety than there are women.

    Comment by Suzi | June 19, 2008 | Reply

  13. Both daycares we have sent our son to do that, call the group “friends.” At first I thought it was a way for staff to get around learning the children’s names. Then I picked it up for awhile because it seemed like a positive way to frame interactions. Now I’ve quit by default because I’m working so much that we don’t go places where “friends” might be. We only go places where real friends and cousins are. But I suspect if I tried that now, my 3 y-o would set me straight as to who is and is not his friend.

    Your last sentence has me wondering: with adults mis-labelling other children, how does a child learn what a friend really is? I knew a family that amused themselves by mis-labelling things, and their poor oldest child didn’t discover until kindergarten that those things on your hands were “mittens” not “hand-socks”. That was harmless. Knowing what constitutes a friend, really, is important.

    Comment by Henny Penny | June 19, 2008 | Reply

  14. Hi! I just recently found your blog, and really enjoy it! I thought I’m comment on this one, because that kind of thing really bugs me, too. Especially the syrupy voice. I actually have the opposite problem. My 2 1/2 year old daughter calls any new little kid she meets her friend, even when I just refer to them as “that little girl,” for example. We’re working on learning what a friend is and isn’t, but it’s taking a while. Last week, a larger girl (maybe 4 years old?) at a local playground decided that my daughter shouldn’t have a turn on the slide, so she started pummeling her. I stopped the little girl, and all my daughter would say was “Why my friend hitting me, Mommy? I said ‘No, Stop!’ but she didn’t!” We discussed things that friends do, and agreed that the little girl hadn’t been acting like a friend, but I have a feeling it’ll be a long haul to teach her the difference. At least I can be glad that she does a rudimentary version of the social interaction steps you mentioned, I suppose!

    Aw, the poor little thing! Why would her ‘friend’ do such a thing, indeed? Which is precisely the problem with encouraging children to consider all others friends — it leads to just such disillusion, which you would happily spare your child. It should be enough to consider other people potential friends, treat them nicely, and see what emerges.

    You can take comfort in the awareness that you have a warm-hearted, loving child. You can worry (because all mothers do, about their children), about just such disappointments, to which she will be more prone given her open-heartedness. It’s tough, isn’t it?

    The best you can do is what you’re doing: helping her to understand what constitutes a friend, and to accept that not everyone is a friend. (Even if that would be her ideal world!)

    Comment by Kristy | June 19, 2008 | Reply

  15. I’ve also noticed that the more “sacchrine” a parent is…I’ve seen this in men too…the worse their children treat them and by extension the general public.

    Until this post I hadn’t given it much thought (likely because my children are well beyond their toddler years) but you are so right, “everyone’s your friend” is a very dangerous message to send young children.

    Saccharine. It’s sooo annoying, isn’t it? On so many fronts. I once saw a child who was throwing sand in the sandbox. When mommy told her, “Now, honey, we don’t throw sa-aand!”, the child glared and did it again. Mommy again sang sweetly at the child. Child responded by throwing sand at mommy. “Oh, honey, that wasn’t very nice!” mommy whimpered. It was rather pathetic, all in all. I felt sorry for mommy (even as I was exasperated) but it’s very difficult to know what (if anything) to do in that situation.

    Comment by Zayna | June 19, 2008 | Reply

  16. Been reading your blog for a while now, but this is the first time I ‘delurk’ and leave a comment.

    OMG, did this post strike a nerve (nice breakdown on the steps a child needs to take to enter ongoing social interactions, by the way ..). My younger child’s daycare teachers do this ‘friend’ thing.. and it’s driving HIM (and me too) NUTS. At least he’s savvy enough to know what does and does not a friend make (now his older brother is a different story.. which is why I never ever use the term ‘friend’ loosely..)

    As to the saccharine tone (and wanting to beat somebody to death with a sippy cup), what to do when the offender is your children’s dad? It drives me INSANE (and the kids too, to be honest). Can’t beat HIM to death with a sippy cup (kids are beyond sippy cup age), but smothering him with a dish towel has crossed my mind more than once..

    Wow! It’s so rare that fathers do this. How old are the children? Could they speak to him?

    The problem with saccharine is that it’s patronizing, and thus, ultimately disrespectful. They are not small adults, of course; you will of necessity often deal with children differently than adults, but, within the limits of their comprehension and abilities, you should treat them with the same respect you do anyone.

    Comment by Petra | June 19, 2008 | Reply

  17. I wonder if the parents and caregivers who do the syrupy “friends” bit are too caught up in trying to be “friends” themselves.

    My aunt was like that. She was “friends” with her daughter, so my cousin treated her like a friend rather than a mother and that often led to disagreements – the sort my cousin should have been having with friends her own age. And the syrupy bit came in when my aunt would try to assert her authority as the parent and get brutally cut down by my cousin. “Now, honey…you know that hurts my feelings…”


    Blah, indeed. Your teens won’t always thank you for parenting them (any more than your toddlers!), but it’s far better to be their parent than their friend. They have lots of friends; they have only one set of parents. If you do the job well, and have sufficient luck, you’ll end up friends when they’re grown. I consider my eldest (she’s 22 and living on her own) to have crossed that line, and though she will always be my child, she is also now a friend.

    Comment by rambleicious | June 19, 2008 | Reply

  18. Hey Mary:

    The boys are 10 and 5 (!!). The 5 year old will give his dad the ‘look’ whenever dad goes all syrupy. My 10 year old isn’t necessarily able to articulate that it’s creeping him out (but his body language speaks volumes). I think rambleicious hit the nail on the head though.. Daddy wants to be the boys’ ‘best friend and big goofy playmate’.

    And thank you so much for saying that the saccharine crap is patronizing!!! I’ve tried to explain that over and over again.. but then of course -I- get the saccharine spiel as to how what I am saying ‘is really not very nice.’. Then again, I think some of it is just ingrained.. my in-laws do the EXACT SAME THING!!!!


    Oh, dear. Why is it “not very nice”? You’re not suggesting you layer on the sarcasm and call the boys names, instead, are you? If, as I assume, you’re merely suggesting calm and rational talk, I can’t see where that’s “not nice”. But someone who uses saccharine on adults is probably not going to catch the distinction. If his parents are just the same way? You’re probably stuck with it — here’s hoping he’s a wonderful man/husband/father in all other respects!

    Comment by Petra | June 20, 2008 | Reply

  19. I had a good laugh over this post! I thought this woman was using “friends” in place of unseen things e.g. “the Others.

    If I were there, I’d be rolling my eyes too at the sickly sweet way of talking and the excess enthusiasm. Glad to see someone feels the same way about saccharine-sweet people 🙂

    Sigh, why can’t they just be themselves?

    Comment by KittyCat | July 17, 2008 | Reply

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