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Friendship with 'bad' kid yields valuable life lessons

For roughly 12 weeks back in the summer of 1972, my best friend was the baddest kid around. Even at the tender age of 8, Bobby seemed intent on committing at least one misdemeanor a day. If he wasn't stealing candy from our neighborhood convenience store, he was shooting squirrels with his BB gun. No one was exempt from his daily crime spree. Not parents, not teachers and certainly not small animals.

Why did I want to be friends with a kid who liked to steal and spill squirrel blood? The most obvious reason was that Bobby's family had a gigantic pool. Being a silent accomplice to his life of crime seemed like a reasonable price to pay for the privilege of floating around in that pool every day.

The other reason why I wanted to be Bobby's friend was that it was fun to hang out with a bad kid. Years of faithful attendance at a Catholic elementary school had taught me that I'd risk eternal damnation if I stole a comic book or told a lie. Concepts like eternal damnation and breaking commandments seemed lost on Bobby. He lived life without a conscience and, in turn, without fear and guilt. Part of me believed that my friend was going straight to hell. Another part of me wanted to be just like him.

Our friendship ended when Bobby's crime sprees started to extend to my baseball card collection and, eventually, the big ceramic mug where I kept my allowance money. He denied it, but I knew he was stealing from me. Once I had become Bobby's victim, hanging out in his pool lost its appeal. Things ended for good when he stole my Brooks Robinson rookie card. Whether you're 8 or 88, a guy has to draw the line somewhere.

As much as I'd still like to have those baseball cards back, I don't regret being Bobby's friend. Looking back, I realize that meeting a guy who wasn't a good friend was just as important as meeting a guy who was. In a weird way, I'm thankful that he stole my allowance money. I'm even more thankful that my mom allowed me the freedom to make my own friends -- and my own mistakes.

Sadly, this is a freedom that my wife and I never extended to our own son. Throughout his childhood, we subtly steered Zac toward friends that had the Tim and Tricia Hirschbeck Seal of Approval.

If he wanted to go to the movies with a friend who regularly said "please" and "thank you," we were happy to give them a ride and a few bucks for the snack bar. If he wanted to hang out with a kid who wore a Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirt and spit a lot, we always seemed to have a scheduling conflict.

Ten years ago, it seemed like a good idea to try to connect Zac with good kids. But today, I'm wondering if all that well-intentioned matchmaking will inhibit his ability to deal with the Bobbys of this world later on in life. Sooner or later, we're all forced to develop the skills to deal with the baddest kid on the planet. Isn't it easier to develop those skills in kindergarten than in college?

Look, I'm not suggesting that we should encourage our kids to befriend the neighborhood juvenile delinquent. The suggestion from here is that we recognize that there is a serious downside to micromanaging a child's relationships.

If your son happens to know a kid who has a BB gun and a Brooks Robinson rookie card, it might be the best friend he'll ever make.

Tim Hirschbeck, president and founder of KidsPlay Instructional Youth Sports, lives in the Town of Tonawanda.

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