Dear David Coleman: How do I stop my seven-year-old picking up her friends' bad habits?

Q How do I stop my seven-year-old picking up bad habits from her friends? She has a couple of friends that never say please and thank you, and I must say I find them a bit rude sometimes. It drives me crazy when she copies their bad behaviour.

I tell her to be herself, that she has a lovely personality and not to take on the bad manners of others. Is this a bad thing to say? My own mother saw faults in all our friends and I don’t want to be like that. However, I want her to be herself. Can you help?

David replies: It is quite normal for children to be influenced by their friends. Most of us will have had experience of new phraseology, or new attitudes being expressed by our children, at some point, courtesy of friends’ phraseology or attitudes.

It is interesting that you say you want her to be herself, but actually what you are describing is that you want her to be a version of mannerly that fits with your values. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since politeness is a lovely characteristic. Ultimately, however, you are asking her to take on your values rather than the values of her friends. This isn’t about her being herself.

I’m interested to know how your mother used to express her perspective on the faults she perceived in your friends. Perhaps she focused on their behaviour, but I wonder if she used to put them down, by criticising their character. If so, then that is the bit to avoid in helping your daughter to appraise her friends.

I think it is okay to comment on, and disapprove of our children’s friends’ behaviour, if that behaviour is inappropriate or is in significant conflict with our own value base or moral base.

But it is really important to separate that behaviour from the person. For example, your daughter’s friends might act rudely by never saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ but it doesn’t mean they are rude children. They may not yet have learned (or been taught) to act politely when they are being offered something.

It is helpful, perhaps, to show your daughter how her behaviour differs from her friends, or how you might expect her behaviour to differ from her friends (and why). But I think you need to make it clear that you are most interested in your daughter and what she does and why she does it.

Your role is to influence your daughter, not necessarily her friends, and so your daughter needs to be your priority.

So, rather than focusing on the behaviour of her friends, focus on your daughter’s behaviour. If you have certain standards for politeness, then it is perfectly fine to hold her to those standards when she is in your house, or out and about with you.

Naturally, that will mean that you will encourage your daughter to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, linking the use of those words with the positive impact on others in terms of respectfulness and gratitude.

This then helps your daughter to know what you expect from her, not by reference to, or comparison with, her friends’ behaviour, but simply what behaviour you think is appropriate in your family.

Adopting this approach will continue to serve you well when she is a teenager and the behaviours are potentially more challenging (like drinking alcohol, staying out late and so on).

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