Beware the Bear: How to Initiate the Awkward Conversation

It happened when my kids were five years old. I remember because I can still hear my friend’s words ring passionately in my ears: “They need to understand that he’s only three!” She was agitated and upset, her mama bear claws on full display. In response, inside my head, I thought Yes, but I hope you can understand they are only five. And so it was that we found ourselves in the potentially awkward conversation. 


We had been good friends with our neighbors down the street for a couple years. Our kids played together all the time and given their tender ages, often treated each other with the uninhibited manner of siblings. That particular day our kids had been playing, along with another neighbor friend, when the other child, a four year old boy, said something unkind to my friend’s son. My kids didn’t join in the unkindness, nor did they step up to defend their little buddy. They just got back to playing as quickly as possible after a moment of tension. My friend, who had always loved my kids without reservation, suddenly determined they had not been good friends to her son, had not stuck up for him appropriately, and had heaped hurt upon hurt when they sidestepped the conflict by simply trying to continue playing. 


My friend became emotional. She was experiencing the intense protectiveness that can sometimes overwhelm us as parents when we see our children unjustly targeted. By the grace of God I was able to recognize her fraught state of mind as she unleashed her anger and disappointment in my children and called an end to the play. I was able, somehow, not to take it personally but to empathize, and remember that sometimes in our zeal to defend our kids we don’t always see things with absolute clarity. Later, after her seething temper subsided, my friend even laughed about the experience, marveling at how we can be so emotionally overcome when our protective instincts kick in. She thanked me for not overreacting to her overreaction. We continued our frequent socializing and kids’ play times, no worse for wear.


I think of this interaction often when I consider the delicate art of approaching the parents of our children’s friends when there is something that concerns us. What do you do when your child invites a friend over and the friend behaves rudely in your care? What do you do when your child is invited for a sleepover at a friend’s but you’re concerned about what they will spend their time doing or how much supervision they’ll have? How do you handle it when your child becomes friends with a child whose family does not share your views and values about technology use, respectable manners, or what movies are appropriate for what ages? These sticky situations can get us tied up in knots and leave us feeling powerless and anxious. So what’s a parent to do?


While each situation comes with its own potential discomforts and pitfalls, the following guidelines can help us approach other parents with a greater chance of success:


Assume the other parent is your ally

Defenses spring up quickly when we come out with guns blazing, assuming the worst of the other parents and questioning how they raise their kids. No one wants to hear about their own kids behaving badly and no one wants to be accused of bad parenting. But if we prepare for a potentially awkward conversation by choosing ahead of time to believe that the other parent also wants to teach their kids to be kind, respectful, polite, etc., we go into the conversation looking to build a bridge rather than enact retribution. Our stance should never be to teach someone else a lesson, but to invite them into a conversation that will increase understanding. If you feel too emotional to go into the conversation assuming the best of the other, put the confrontation on hold until you are more calm. Our goals should always be understanding and resolution, not simply to be right.


Come with questions, not accusations

Bridges are built through understanding, so if you have a bone to pick with the parent of another child, start by asking questions. What did Henry tell you about the playdate at our house last week? He didn’t seem his usual self—was there something going on that made for a tough day? You will need to use your judgement in formulating questions to ask, but you will be far more likely to have a productive conversation if you try to see the situation from their perspective and are willing to listen more than you talk. If you need to tell a parent that their child displayed atrocious manners in your home or was inappropriately rough either verbally or physically, by all means share your concern. But let it be exactly that—a concern, not an indictment of their parenting. Take a minute to remember the last time your child was a less than perfect representative of your family and extend the grace that you would want extended to you.


Focus on values, not details

Addressing conflict from a wide-angle approach allows you to pinpoint what matters most in a sticky situation. It is easy to get bogged down in specifics when describing an unpleasant episode. Well, first Susy was kind of down because she didn’t get to use her favorite plate at lunchtime, then Maddie bumped into her and Susy thought she did it on purpose but it was an accident, but Susy didn’t know that so she shoved Maddie back and Maddie dropped her cup and splattered milk all over the cat, and. . . In most situations where we need to initiate a tough conversation, the details matter less than the big picture. Are you concerned your children are bringing out the worst in each other? Are you worried that your neighbor’s child or teen may be engaging in dangerous behavior without the parents’ knowledge? Are you upset because every time your child goes to their house they only play video games or watch TV? Such issues require big picture thinking, not a reliving of every detail. Specifics may be important in making a point, but avoid peppering a story with unnecessary extras. It will only muddy the waters and encourage a potentially defensive parent to react to symptoms rather than face real issues.


Confronting a fellow parent is not easy or comfortable, but sometimes it really is necessary. Take time to thoughtfully prepare, see the issue from both sides, and approach with an attitude of collaboration. You never know—you may find you have a stronger ally than you realized, and we can all use more of those as we strive to do our best by our kids.