We have all answered our kids’ requests to spend time at another child’s house with, “But I don’t know the parents.” What do we do about this fear of the unknown? At the top of that list of fears for me is sending my children to a house to play or to spend the night with a family I don’t know.
All of a sudden my children have opinions and friends outside of the ones I have chosen. And plans. Kids make so many plans. They make plans on the bus for after school playdates, they make plans at school for birthday parties and sleepovers, they make plans at recess to go to the movies together. It’s overwhelming. And terrifying.
When your kids are small, it’s easy. All playdates include you—that’s a given. All birthday party invites and events ALWAYS include at least mom and many times your other children. And a huge win is that your kids are only friends with the families you select. You’ve created a bubble, a perfect, safe, comfortable little bubble.
And then kindergarten starts. The invitations start coming home for birthday parties, playdates are planned and then relentlessly begged for, all without your input or a second thought to safety. Your bubble has popped, been crushed, completely destroyed. Your child sees their friend only, they don’t see the ugly that could be lurking behind closed doors. What are the other families’ values? Do they curse, drink, or watch inappropriate TV with the kids? Or even scarier, do they pay attention when the kids are playing or are they just happy their own kids aren’t bothering them? What about weapons? Do they have them? Are they locked up? Are they harboring fugitives, do they have a shrine to Jeffery Dahmer? You know nothing about this home you are sending your child into.
As a family therapist I saw it all. Ok, maybe not a shrine to Dahmer, but I saw a lot. Abuse, neglect, rape, incest, animal cruelty—the acts of nightmares. Behaviors you have every right to protect your child from and in fact, MUST! But how is that possible without straining the relationships with your own children and becoming overbearing and controlling—something they will most likely rebel against as soon as they have the chance?
Here are a few tips that can make parents feel more comfortable loosening the reins.
1. Trust your gut.
If it feels bad, say, “No.” End of story, just say “No.”
2. Volunteer at the school.
Meet the kids’ friends, meet other parents at school functions. If your child is in sports or other activities, don’t drop them off then leave to run errands. Stay and talk to the other parents.
3. Give your child a phone.
I know. It’s controversial and brings up a host of other issues. But before you send hate mail, think about this—people don’t have home phones anymore. If your child feels unsafe at a friend’s house, how do they call for help? “Excuse me, Mr. Dad, who is making me feel afraid, can I borrow your phone to tell my mom?” They need a way to contact you.
4. Teach your child to be rude.
I know the hate mail is on its way! But, hear me out. Most children will be respectful to adults to the point of doing things they know are wrong because they don’t know how to stand up to an adult and say, “No.” Children take candy from strangers, they go into odd looking vans for puppies, they go into bedrooms with adults because they don’t know how to respond. They need to know that sometimes, it’s fine to yell, scream, and run away.
5. Meet with the parents first.
This feels awkward but any parent not willing to do this should NOT be around your child. I had a mom ask my daughter to join their family at Chuck E Cheese. I knew my daughter wanted to go, but I barely knew these people. So I asked, “Can I come, too?” Her response, “Absolutely!” Rarely will a parent tell you, “No, you can’t protect your child”.
6. Be honest with your child.
If you have been parenting well, your child hasn’t heard much about kidnapping, murder, or sexual abuse. Be age appropriate, but tell them that dangers exist. You don’t want to terrify them, but they need to understand that we all have to be careful. Getting hit by a car is a real danger when we run into a parking lot, so is getting sexually assaulted behind closed doors. Tell them just enough to be aware and ask them questions when they return.
7. Create a plan for what to do when they feel uncomfortable.
The plan will vary from home to home, but in general my kids know it’s ok
- to run out of a house.
- to call home
- to look at the clock and say, “Oh no! I’m late, I gotta get home!”
8. Give them the words to use and the times to use them.
“Oh, my mom’s calling.” Though she really isn’t.
“I don’t feel good.” This one is especially effective when paired with covering the mouth 😉
Have your child call home and say, “Did you get me a notebook for school?” Which you will know is code for, “Come get me, now!”
All of these are tools to give your kids to use if they ever feel uncomfortable. Be creative, and keep talking about it. As parents we can only do so much to protect our children. But if you adopt any of these tactics, or your own, you will feel so much more comfortable when your child asks, “Can I spend the night at Peter’s house?”