Never Be Shy About Safety
"It is actually good for your child to be exposed to other ways of doing things and other families' values," says Bette Alkazian, a therapist and founder of balancedparenting.com, a family- and parent-coaching Web site. "These differences are a terrific opportunity for her to learn when to be a get-along-go-along guest and when she should assert herself." Knowing she can negotiate playtime culture clashes will help you relax when your kid is at someone else's house -- as well as when the gang is over at yours.
It might feel awkward to ask a mom who's gracious enough to host your child, "Oh, by the way, do you have a swimming pool, and if so, is there a locked gate?" But not only is that reasonable, it's smart. Before you agree to a playdate, scope out the serious stuff: Who will be supervising the kids? Will they use helmets if they ride bikes or scooters? And the biggie: Are there any guns in the house? (Just incorporate this into the general stream of pre-playdate questions.) A parent who's on the same page as you when it comes to safety isn't going to flinch at your questions -- she's going to be happy to have found a like-minded family. On the other hand, if the parent looks at you as if you're crazy for bringing it up, consider that a red flag -- this may not be such a compatible household. If you don't feel comfortable asking the questions or with the answers you receive, have your get-togethers on neutral territory -- say, the local park.
If your intuition tells you that this family's safety standards don't meet your own, don't feel bad about declining invitations altogether or insisting the kids get together only at your house.
Don't Be a Control Freak
What if you don't want your child to watch TV, play video games, or eat processed foods when he's visiting? Can you write up a list of dos and don'ts for the other parents? Not unless you want to be a playdate pariah. It's better to ignore your impulse to micromanage every moment of your child's life, advises Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a marriage and family therapist in Ontario, Canada. Instead, gradually instill your values in your child.
Before he heads to a pal's home, take the opportunity to talk about something that might come up. For example, if you know that your kid is having a playdate with a video-game addict and you're afraid he's going to end up playing Grand Theft Auto, remind him of your rules against playing games that are rated Teen or above. You may be pleasantly surprised at how closely your kid follows the guidelines. "My daughter was once offered ice cream at someone's house at 10 a.m. and she turned it down, saying that she didn't think her mother would want her to have sweets in the morning," says Barbara Candiano-Marcus, of Valencia, California, author of Baby Prodigy: A Guide to Raising a Smarter, Happier Baby. Even if your a child isn't that scrupulous, don't worry. Keep your eye on the big picture. If the other family seems kind and concerned about your kid's safety, don't sweat the small stuff. Give your own child gentle reminders about TV rules or food wishes if you think that's an issue, but don't make her feel anxious. You want to make sure that she says "no" to the important things like playing with matches. Then you'll feel at ease and she'll have a great time.
When You're the Hangout Hostess
How do you deal with parents who insist you make sure their child drinks 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes or who mandate their child not be allowed in the same room with a television -- whether it's off or on? When the guest parent starts giving instructions, say something like, "We'll do our best," but don't make any promises. If the other mom doesn't back down a little, see if you can schedule the next get-together at her house. It's easier for your kid to adapt to strict rules for an afternoon than it is for you to arrange your household to accommodate someone else's needs. The same rule applies when a wild child shows up on your well-ordered doorstep -- if your daughter's best friend jumps on the furniture, don't listen to "My mom lets me!" The bottom line: your house, your rules.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Parents magazine.