Would you stand up for your bullied child if it cost you a dear friendshipA new film shows how confronting the parent of a badly behaved child can lead to emotional carnage…
Last summer, my daughter Matilda was thrilled to be invited to her friend Ruby’s eighth birthday sleepover along with another little girl.
She eagerly counted down the days to the big night, so when I collected her the following day I was surprised when Ruby’s mum Louise explained there had been a bit of a squabble among the girls, but that they had sorted it out.
In the car, I put Matilda’s uncharacteristic silence down to tiredness. But when we reached home, she burst into tears. ‘That was the worst night ever!’ she sobbed.
Psychologists says we are biologically programmed to pass on our genetic material, so we will fight to the death for our own child
Then it all came out. Ruby and another child, Tess, had ganged up on her. They had teased her and excluded her from their imaginary ballet show. Then Ruby had made her sleep on the floor instead of in their shared king-size bed. Hadn’t she told Louise Yes, Matilda said — but Louise said they were all being silly. The thought of my precious little girl crying herself to sleep in a strange place was unbearable and my first instinct was to drive straight back and personally strangle Ruby with her ballet skirt.
Instead, I brooded for several days. Ruby had previously been unkind to other children — and Louise had never stopped her. Should I confront Louise We had been great friends since meeting at a toddler group six years before.
Like me, Louise was combining a demanding job with small children; she was clever and had a wicked sense of humour. Together, we negotiated tears, tantrums, school admissions, sleeping problems . . . . and our girls seemed to get on well. We should surely be able to talk about this.
But I knew that Louise had cut off other friends who had approached her about Ruby’s behaviour. So should I simply withdraw, and quietly stop Matilda from going over to play, too Either way, I was going to lose my friendship with Louise.
I took the cowardly route and simply stopped seeing her. When she next rang to arrange a playdate for the girls I gave the excuse that my sister was staying. I told her I’d be in touch, though I never was.
When we moved away three months later I didn’t give her our new address.
Nine months on, I still miss her clever conversation and quick wit — but Matilda comes first.
If I ever regret not confronting Louise, I need only watch Roman Polanski’s latest film Carnage, which charts in excruciating detail the fall-out when two sets of parents meet to discuss an incident between their 11-year-old sons.
Roman Polanski's latest film Carnage, charts in excruciating detail the fall-out when two sets of parents meet to discuss an incident between their 11-year-old sons
The two boys are playing in the park when one hits the other in the mouth with a stick. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play a wealthy, successful New York couple who dutifully trek to the apartment of the middle-class parents of their son’s classmate to apologise for his behaviour.
Both sets of parents are initially polite — but soon their meeting descends into full-scale psychological and verbal warfare.
Elnette MacDonald, 37, a teacher, also knows to her cost what can happen when parents get involved in spats between children.
Four years ago, she, her husband John, 39, a civil engineer, and their daughter Hannah, then two, went on holiday to Portugal with her close friend Sarah, a communications consultant, Sarah’s husband Paul, a businessman, and their daughter Alys, also two.
Elnette first met Sarah at a Stirling baby clinic and the two quickly became great friends, enjoying shopping trips, coffee at home, and outings with their children.
They were natural holiday companions — or so Elnette thought — until her daughter Hannah began getting bitten by their friend’s child Alys while they were away.
‘She did it repeatedly, so much so that Hannah had U-shaped bruises on her arms,’ Elnette recalls. ‘I was reluctant to make an issue of it and just tried to keep Hannah away from her, thinking that it would soon be over and we could go home.’
Elnette’s husband didn’t want to make a scene either, but they were pushed to breaking point on the final day of the holiday when Alys threw a tantrum in a restaurant.
‘Seeing that she was crying, Hannah tried to offer her a book — but Alys’s parents both screamed at her to leave Alys alone,’ Elnette says.
The reason we jump to defend our children is that any criticism of them is invariably interpreted as criticism of our parenting
‘I just saw red,’ she confesses. ‘I was shaking with anger. Alys’s behaviour towards Hannah was completely unacceptable — and they had to do something about it, not shout at our daughter.’
Elnette wanted an apology at the very least. What she received, though, was defiance and anger. ‘Paul, Alys’s dad, was furious,’ she recalls. ‘He said I was being completely unreasonable, expecting Alys to act in the same way as Hannah as they weren’t the same age. But there was all of three months between them!’
According to Elnette, Sarah, Alys’s mother, was no better. ‘She was fuming,’ she says. ‘She said there was nothing wrong with Alys’s behaviour, and then the whole family stormed out of the restaurant without another word.’
The following morning, the two couples bumped into one another at their hotel when they were all taking their suitcases downstairs. ‘I said: “Don’t you want to talk about this” but they completely ignored me,’ Elnette remembers. ‘I couldn’t believe that Sarah wasn’t willing to try to salvage our friendship.’
Worse was to follow. ‘We had to drop off our hire car, and ended up standing behind them in the queue as our flight was leaving just after theirs. They just looked through us. We were ignoring one another after spending a holiday together.’
A week after storming off, Sarah did write to Elnette. ‘She said she was sad at how things had ended,’ Elnette explains. ‘But she didn’t apologise, and she made no reference to their or Alys’s behaviour. We’ve had no contact since.’
Although the confrontation ended with Elnette losing a good friend, she says she would do the same again. ‘If someone’s child was bullying Hannah and it was affecting her, I would definitely tackle their parents,’ she says. ‘Even if they were friends of mine, my daughter’s well-being will always come before my friendships.’
According to psychologist Linda Blair, Elnette’s reaction might have been bold, but it is completely natural. ‘We are biologically programmed to pass on our genetic material, so we will fight to the death for our own child,’ she says. ‘It’s a primitive instinct: the survival of your young depends on you defending them.’
Mother-of-three Jane Emms, 42, from Nottingham, has experienced the mother’s instinct to protect her young — from the other side.
After attending her ten-year-old son Max’s school Harvest Festival, she was stopped by her close friend and neighbour Bridget, the mother of one of Max’s schoolmates.
'The reason we jump to defend our children is that any criticism of them is invariably interpreted as criticism of our parenting'
‘She came over and said: “Max has been bullying Giles,” ’ Jane says. ‘I was shocked and said surely she must be mistaken, but Bridget snapped back: “No I’m not, he has the bruises to prove it. So don’t think he’s ever coming to our house again. What kind of parent are you” ’
Jane was horrified. ‘I felt physically sick. My legs were shaking. My good friend had just said my son was a bully and it was my fault. I tried to speak, but I could only croak: “I’m sorry.” Then Bridget just shrugged and walked away.’
Jane confronted Max, who admitted that he had kicked his friend Giles — but said that it had been during a game. The issue was resolved satisfactorily within school, with both boys accepting that they played a part in a game that got out of hand. But their mothers’ six-year friendship was over for good.
‘I apologised again, but Bridget said she wanted nothing more to do with me because of Max’s behaviour,’ says Jane. ‘She wouldn’t accept that both boys were involved. It’s very awkward in the playground, and it’s sad as we were close friends and used to share after-school care. Now she huddles in the playground with a group of other mothers, and moves away if I approach them.’
Jane can understand how Bridget felt. ‘I’d feel the same if one of my children were the victim. But Bridget tackling it in that way just made me feel useless and defensive. I wish she’d said: “There seems to be a bit of a problem between our boys at the moment. Could we have a chat about it”’
The reason we jump to defend our children is that any criticism of them is invariably interpreted as criticism of our parenting, explains clinical psychologist Alison Knights.
She says: ‘Most parents feel vulnerable, and already worry that they’re not doing a good enough job, so other people’s criticisms stir up a whole host of negative feelings.’
Anna Wise, 33, a charity fundraiser from Herefordshire, understands this — she lost a good friend as a result of a disagreement about how to deal with the behaviour of her children Theo, three, and Zoe, two.
‘I became good friends with Jackie through trips to the local indoor soft-play centre,’ Anna recalls. ‘She was very different from me — an ex-headteacher, who ran the lives of her two-year-old twin sons Matty and Louis with military precision — but we just hit it off, and spent most of our time chatting while the children played.’
Then Theo, two at the time, accidentally pushed Matty off a low wall at a playground. Matty fell and knocked his front teeth. Two days later, one of his teeth went grey and died.
Anna was mortified, and apologised profusely. ‘It made things a bit awkward,’ she says, ‘but Jackie appreciated that it had been an accident, and we valued our friendship so we got through it.’
Although the primitive cave mum in me still thinks I did right, I do wonder whether I should have been a bit less judgmental and a bit more understanding
Two months later, though, Anna invited Jackie and her boys for lunch along with another woman called Helen and her three-year-old daughter Maisie.
As Anna explains, the timing was bad. ‘My daughter Zoe was 18 months, and my son Theo not quite three. I was suffering from post-natal depression, had just moved house, and life was frustrating and plain stressful.’
After several minor skirmishes between the children, Zoe picked up a giant plastic brick and started hitting the other children on the head with it.
‘I said no three times. She just wouldn’t stop. So I smacked her hand. Only very lightly — but a smack all the same.’
Helen suggested that ‘time out’ might be a better option. ‘I stayed calm, but I was screaming inside: “I’ve had two children very close together, I’m doing my best — just give me a break!”’ she says.
As she was clearing away the toys, Anna overheard Jackie whisper to Helen: ‘I’ve only ever had to resort to the naughty step twice, ever. I would never resort to smacking.’
Crushed, Anna pretended she hadn’t heard. ‘I waited for them to leave, then just sobbed. We’ve never contacted one another since.’
Anna’s story exemplifies an important point, says Alison Knights. ‘We do sometimes think that our friends are mishandling their children’s behaviour,’ she says. ‘But if you challenge someone head on who’s already struggling, they’re likely to feel defensive and angry.’
This makes me think. When I severed my friendship with Louise, she and her husband had recently separated and she was struggling to cope with three children. Although the primitive cave mum in me still thinks I did right, I do wonder whether I should have been a bit less judgmental and a bit more understanding.
And maybe we should take our cue from our children. ‘Children have a spat, then forget it,’ says Linda Blair. ‘They don’t hold grudges. This is perhaps what we should aspire to.’
The two children featured in Carnage exemplify this perfectly. As their parents wreak havoc indoors, they have patched up their differences and are playing together outside again.
So when Matilda asked last weekend if she could send a card to Ruby my instinct was to say, ‘After what she did to you Over my dead body.’ But I took a deep breath and thought again. Maybe Matilda is right — and maybe it’s time for me to give Louise my new address, too.
The names of some children have been changed.