When Her Friends Make Bad Choices by Karen Rile

bus-stop-croppedAlice: “Mom, I know what they did is wrong. But please don’t tell anyone.
Mom: “I realize they’re your classmates. But we have to do something.”
Alice: “It’s none of our business, Mom. And if you tell, no one will ever trust us again!”

Moments earlier, my sixth-grader had anxiously led me to an internet website created by three junior high girls at their small school. The “Hotties Slideshow” featured photos of its twelve- and thirteen-year-old authors in a series of provocative poses with accompanying suggestive titles, all set to a steamy pop torch song. I winced as I watched it.

But my daughter assured me that wasn’t even the bad part of the slideshow. Suddenly onto the screen burst an unflattering shot of Samantha, one of the girls in her older sister’s 8th-grade class, with a cruel commentary about Samantha’s physical appearance.I supposed I’d known that this was bound to happen sooner or later, one of those big tests of parenthood. But somehow I wasn’t prepared. What are you supposed to do when you discover that your daughters’ friends are doing things that you believe are wrong—or even dangerous?

I called my eighth-grader into the room and asked her what she thought about the Hotties Slideshow. “I think it’s horrible, Mom,” she admitted, her eyes trained steadily on the laces of her purple-and-green sneakers. “But Samantha doesn’t know about the website,” she rushed on. “If you bust the other guys, there will be a scandal and Samantha will be humiliated in front of the entire school.”

My daughter had a point.  On the other hand, the website itself was public, and because word travels fast among the junior high population in a small school community, Samantha’s feelings were bound to be hurt soon. Perhaps equally disturbing was the rest of the slideshow. Despite my daughters’ pleading reassurances that it was “no big deal” and that “lots of kids” put up sexy shots of themselves on the internet, I was feeling queasy. Who else out there in cyberspace would end up viewing the “Hotties Slideshow”?

Balance trust with responsibility
“It’s tough to walk the line between keeping your own daughter’s confidence and wanting to do the right thing, to protect the other children,” says psychologist Lynda S. Madison, director of Family Support and Psychological Services at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, and the mother of two young adult daughters. “You need to weigh the egregiousness of the situation and the risk to the children involved against the reaction that’s likely to come back on your daughter. You also want your daughter to remain open and trusting, and to bring these concerns to you in the future.”

The key is working out a plan with her. “You could tell her that you feel a need to stop this hurtful situation,” says Madison. “Then get her approval to move forward with a cautious and respectful plan by going directly to the parents of the children who have done the hurtful actions.”  Remind her that you’re both in the same boat. “Explain that this is a kind of peer pressure situation for you, too,” notes Madison. “This is a chance for her to see you stand up for what you believe in, to give her confidence that she can do the same. The important piece is to handle the problem in a way that preserves and dignifies your relationship with your child.”

When other parents react badly
But what about when your good deed backfires—when doing what you believe is the right and necessary thing ruins your relationship with a friend? Nancy, a Daughters reader, writes of an episode that left her perplexed and saddened. When an out-of-town friend of 20 years visited for a few days with her fourteen-year-old daughter, the daughter told Nancy’s own daughter about hometown friends who were sexually active, and who had sneaked out of her house in the middle of the night during a sleepover. Nancy writes:

Even though my daughter asked me not to tell the mother, I felt I had a duty, parent-to-parent and friend-to-friend, to say something. I asked the mother first if she wanted to know, asked her also if she felt her daughter had exaggerated, and then specifically told her that I was only repeating what my daughter had told me. I also told her my daughter did not wish to take them up on their offer of spending a weekend with them because she did not feel it was safe.

Well, the mother has not spoken with me in three months. She finally e-mailed me and told me I was ‘unsafe to talk to’ and that I had judged her. She also added that I surely have heard of kids sneaking out at night. I was shocked by her reaction. Is it best just to keep our mouths shut? I have to admit that if I did not know the mother as well, I probably would not have said anything. Should that matter?

Nancy’s experience, of being rebuffed despite her careful words and good intentions, sounds like a cautionary tale for those of us who don’t have enough sense to mind our own business. If we dare to speak up, we make ourselves – and our daughters – vulnerable to criticism and rejection. Maybe it’s safer just to look the other way.

On the other hand, if it were your daughter who was in trouble, would you want informed parents to look the other way?

The power of parent “collusion”
“Dilemmas like this can really bring out the strength of parents, both as individuals and in concert with one another,” says Molly Layton, a Philadelphia-based family therapist and writer for The Family Therapy Networker. “Of course, these issues are tougher on some parents than others. They may feel narcissistically wounded and will have trouble connecting if they feel that they are being criticized. They may be resentful, or even vindictive towards those they feel are judging them.” Bottom line, though, parents with information need to tell, says Layton.

It’s important for adults to figure out how to collude with one another—“Heaven knows, the kids are colluding,” she notes. When Layton’s own daughter was in high school, and there were questions about where the kids were when they were out, she realized that she didn’t know the other families well enough. Layton started a circle of parents of girls: a few barbeques and potlucks, for the sole purpose of being able to call one another at one a.m., if necessary, to see how and where their daughters were. “We weren’t trying to be friends,” notes Layton. “We were trying to develop a network, and we were all pretty clear on that.

Get help from a neutral third party
Don’t hesitate to start an informal parent network even before trouble starts. But sometimes a situation pops up before a network is in place, when talking to the other parents seems out of the question or you worry that doing so might result in repercussions too great for your daughter to bear.  The next-best step is to secure the support of a neutral authority figure such as a school official, who can protect your child’s identity while going right to the source of the inappropriate behavior. “Let this person know that your goal is that he or she will address it in a discreet, tactful, and educational way,” advises Madison.

The Case of the Hotties Slide Show had a happy ending for all involved. When I came home from my long walk, my head felt clearer and I knew what I had to do. I acted indirectly, calling a close friend whose daughter was also in the eighth grade class. After my friend confirmed my sense that the website was degrading to all of the girls, she volunteered to break the news to Samantha’s mom, who was a friend of hers. Samantha’s mom asked me to get in touch with Harriet, one of the Slide Show girls’ mothers, who was also a teacher at the school. With Harriet’s help, the other Slide Show girls’ parents were informed.

The school provided a safe and discreet way to facilitate a series of painful but productive meetings with all of the girls involved, as well as their parents. The episode was never mentioned in public and the website soon disappeared for good. I felt fortunate, and not for the first time, to be part of the village that’s raising my daughters.

Three steps for a sticky situation
*Talk it over thoroughly with your daughter. Make sure she knows you understand about her concerns of betraying friends. But be clear that you need to ensure the safety of both her and her friends.

*Notify others in a low-key way. If other parents react badly, feel confident that you did the right thing. If school officials drag their feet, be politely persistent.

*If bad behavior keeps happening, talk with her about adding new friends. Help her find them by joining clubs or community groups.

Obviously, it was time for the adults to intervene. It takes a village to raise a child, and my responsibility as a citizen of that village was clear. To my daughters’ distress, I picked up the phone.

But who to call? The parents of the Slide Show trio might tell me to mind my own business. Samantha’s parents might feel shocked by the news, and unsupported if all I offered was a telephone tip. And, save the fact that the unflattering picture of Samantha was taken on campus, this was not technically a school issue—was it? I put the phone back in its cradle and took the dog out for a long walk, and a think.


About the author: Karen Rile lives and writes in Philadelphia where she teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She and her husband have four daughters.