Badmouthing a 3-year-old

Illustration Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole,

I have a feisty 3-year-old daughter, and a friend recently confided in me — although I know she felt terrible about telling me this — that a mutual friend of ours has been telling people stories about all the “bratty things that [my] daughter does” (that’s a direct quote). My 3-year-old is being maligned in public, and I don’t know what to do because I was told about this in confidence. What do you suggest?

Confidentially yours,

Dear Mom,

Whoa, that’s a heavy thing for your friend to dump on you in confidence. If you give somebody heavy info like that, it should be a step toward empowering them to fix the situation. So item No. 1 on your action list: Tell your friend that while you want to respect your friendship, your daughter comes first. She needs to accept your right to act on the info she has armed you with. Otherwise, there is no purpose for her to have told you in the first place (unless it was a misguided attempt to be cautionary, i.e., “Don’t trust this person, I know she’s two-faced — here’s an example!…oops…” —but even then, she should expect you to act on the information). Hopefully, she’ll support you in what has to happen next; frankly, she’s kind of a jerk if she doesn’t.

Action step No. 2: Confront the maligner. Don’t be angry or accusatory, which will accomplish nothing beyond the immediate satisfaction of venting your upset. Say (or write) something like, “If my daughter has done something to upset you, please talk to me directly about it, so that I can address the behavior myself. If I agree with you that it’s inappropriate, I can turn it into a teaching moment. If I think you’re overreacting, we can discuss appropriate boundaries for how much you and my daughter interact.Telling other people what you don’t like about her accomplishes nothing except creating awkwardness between them and me. If you’re my friend, why would you want to do that?”

But this is tricky. Chances are the maligner will protest innocence, which means one of two things: One (less likely), she IS innocent, and you’re being played by the other friend (who then becomes the person who requires confronting; or you could just hang a clove of garlic on your door to keep her away). Two (and likelier), the maligner is a pathological liar, or narcissist, or is damaged in some other way — i.e. she doesn’t believe she should be held accountable for her actions. In this case, trying to hold her accountable is a waste of time. Depending on her particular flavor of Being Damaged, she will either never malign your daughter again — or else she will.

Worst-case scenario: She keeps maligning your daughter. What are your options? There are a bunch, but here’s the best one: IGNORE HER. Trust that people who actually know you and/or your daughter will see her behavior for what it is. If a grown woman is reduced to badmouthing a 3-year-old for sport, she’s not the sort of person anyone should be taking seriously anyhow.

That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” has recently been published. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to