Foul-mouthed friend

Dear Mr. Dad: My 16-year-old son has two close friends: “Paul,” a very nice and polite boy, and “Mike,” a vulgar loudmouth, who, I feel, is a bad influence on my son. When I ask my son why he hangs out with Mike, he says the boy is “fun.” I’d like to encourage my son to spend more time with Paul and less (or none) with Mike. How do I go about it without being too overbearing?

A: One of the most fascinating things about adolescence is that kids often gravitate towards the peers their parents can’t stand, instead of the ones we like. It’s also a well-known fact that teenagers are influenced by their peer groups. “Good” kids are a positive force and encourage others to do well at school, get involved in sports, plan for college, and generally do all the “right” things. The teens who skip school (or drop out altogether), have no well-defined direction or goals in life, smoke, do drugs, or are in trouble with the law, may sway impressionable kids to follow their lead. That is every parent’s nightmare.

Here’s the problem: Forbidding your son to hang out with Mike will likely backfire. At 16 he’s going through a perfectly normal defiant phase anyway, and you don’t want to fuel any more conflicts than you’re already having. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get involved; just do it in a diplomatic way that won’t push your boy farther away from you and closer you-know-who. As always, taking a non-confrontational, non-judgmental approach is your best bet.

Ask your son what he finds so appealing about Mike. What does he mean by “fun?” Is it possible that Mike actually has some redeeming qualities that your son sees, but you don’t? In other words, if you look beyond the cursing and the brash behavior, is Mike just a regular kid who swears to mask his own insecurities, or maybe to show off and attract attention? If Mike really more of a class clown that a hood, your son probably won’t be harmed by spending time with him (of course, he won’t benefit much from it either). If, on the other hand, Mike’s language usage is a reflection of a deeper problem or a dysfunction, and if you feel that your son is imitating Mike’s behavior and mouth, then yes, be concerned, be vigilant, and be proactive.

Here’s your challenge: you want your son to lose interest in Mike, but you want him to do it because he wants to, not because you told him to. Start by encouraging your son to spend more time with Paul. Invite the boy to family outings, sleepovers, or whatever arrangements are appropriate. If your son asks whether Mike can be included in those activities, resist the urge to shout “NO!” Instead, explain that you find Mike’s swearing objectionable and tiresome, and don’t really enjoy having him around. Tell him, too, that while all of us occasionally let loose with a few words our parents wouldn’t be proud of, Mike’s consistently poor communication skills might exclude him from social interactions and limit his future job opportunities. Pointing out the possible consequences of the boy’s incessant cursing may de-glamorize him in your son’s eyes. Be careful not to criticize Mike’s personality in general; focus on just this specific behavior.

Will it work? In the best-case scenario your son will start to distance himself from the loudmouth. If other kids are shunning Mike as well, your son will probably realize that there’s nothing interesting or attractive about Mike’s poor choice of vocabulary.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: Sooner or later our kids will have to make their own decisions in life–and choose their own friends—and we, as parents, can only take a deep breath, cross our fingers. and hope that those choices are the right ones.