A complete guide to interacting with other people's children

Keeping the peace (and your furniture) intact during a playdate isn't that hard if you adopt sound strategies from the beginning

"It takes a village," we like to say. And indeed, busy 21st-century parents rely upon each other for advice, affirmation, and support just as much as our forebears did.

This is all the more true once our little ones move past the age in which only family members, very close friends, and vetted professional caregivers are trusted to care for them in our absence (this is usually around the time a toddler moves out of diapers). And it's only natural for the kids themselves to want to spend more time with their friends, in the homes of those friends… and without us.

It feels like a win-win. Playdates give children an opportunity to spend time in the company of someone other than an exhausted 38-year-old who thinks reading Scientific American out loud constitutes a good time. And — let's be honest — it gives at least one of the parents in the equation some much-needed time off. (Who hasn't scheduled a playdate conveniently around an overdue visit to the dentist?)

Everything seems hunky-dory... until the issue of discipline comes up.

Hop into any parenting chat room, and you'll find that the subject of managing children's behavior is more fraught — and leads to more contentious "discussion" — than the issues of gun control and birth control combined. Add on the added tension of the child(ren) in question belonging to someone else, and you find a veritable firestorm of argument and vitriol.

When I was young, it was generally understood that any auntie in our neighborhood had the right to call me to task (loudly) if she thought I was being disrespectful, just as any uncle had the right to intervene in a childish dispute. But times have changed. When it comes to other people's children, today's Americans are paralyzed by — and terrified of — the notion of maintaining order and peace in the household when there are unrelated children involved.

The reasons are manifold. Our increasingly heterogeneous culture has led to vastly different parenting styles, even amongst close acquaintances. American society in general has become quick to take offense and even quicker to take legal action. Finally, modern parents project upon and identify with their offspring more than any other group of relatives in history. Any perceived criticism of a child's behavior is seen as a criticism of the child herself — and, by extension, her parents. We can therefore find ourselves in really awkward situations when we entertain other people's offspring in our homes, especially when those children need guidance that will keep themselves, others, and your heirloom dining room table safe.

"Continual and active communication" is the key, says Jennifer Bryant, an experienced educator and early childhood developer who opened and operated a preschool before moving on to pursue a Masters degree in counseling.

"Parents who agree to leave their children in the care of another adult should have already established a firm basis of trust with that adult. Reinforce this trust by having a clear and candid conversation about discipline before the playdate."

This conversation should include some basic information about each household (ages of all children in the house, who else might be around), and an articulation about expectations ("I will have the children participate in clean-up when necessary") and rules ("I'll be reminding the children we don't take food into the living areas at our house"). Let the other parent know how you plan to deal with any difficult situations that might arise ("If they need time away from each other, I might separate them for a while").

Then ask if that is okay with the other parent.

"Everyone likes to feel included in important decisions," says Bryant. "Parents need this when the decision involves their child." If you find you cannot agree upon an approach to certain common situations, then you probably should reschedule the playdate for a time when both parents can be in attendance and in charge of his or her own child(ren).

Bryant also suggests that you pre-empt any possible conflicts or meltdowns by sharing information about the child(ren)'s personalities and routines.

"You might ask, 'What should I be aware of — are there any sensitivities? Emotional triggers? May I allow them to watch TV?'" she says.

Finally, be very clear about physical interactions. While it is never, ever appropriate to strike or otherwise punitively touch another person's child, there might be situations in which you find yourself needing pre-emptive parental permission to touch.

"I might need to gently separate two tussling children, or comfort with a hug," says Bryant. "But I will make certain I have the okay to do so from another parent before I'm confronted with the situation."

Once the playdate is in progress, we all hope everything goes smoothly. But these are kids, after all, and chances are some situation or behavior will require your intervention as the adult on scene.

"Children want the same things anyone does," reminds Bryant. "Respect. Understanding. Empathy. If things start to go sideways, don't just get upset. Engage the child and try to help him or her understand expectations — lead graciously, as you would expect any other responsible adult to do with your child."

That might mean stepping into a fraught situation and practicing some positive redirection.

"Stay away from 'no' and 'don't' and focus on the behavior you want to see," advises Bryant. "Say, 'This is what we do do,' not 'This is what we don't do,' because 'We don't do that' carries an immediate negative connotation. It tends to widen a gap of mutual respect by putting the other person in the wrong and you in the right."

That's never a good basis for effective communication.

"If a child is misbehaving, try saying 'May I share something with you?' Give the child a positive alternative that will get him or her more respect and attention."

So if little Augustus is using the couch as a trampoline, you might say, "We work hard to keep the things in our house nice. I hope you think our things are nice, too. Please help me keep them that way by treating them carefully. The couch is for sitting."

"Children also appreciate reasons," explains Bryant. "Give the child credit and explain the 'whys' behind your rules."

Also think about age and stage when considering this response. Is Augustus old enough to understand the physics of overloading springs? Or is it better just to say, "Jumping hurts the couch, and that makes me feel bad," and leave it at that?

And if, after all that, Augustus still really needs to get his jump on? Try redirecting him someplace where he can express that need appropriately. Hopscotch and leapfrog are always fun.

There is another important strategy when it comes to managing any child's behavior in your home: modeling. Bryant explains:

Actively demonstrate the kind of behavior you want to see. If a child is treating toys roughly, sit with her and handle the toy appropriately, even as you explain why you are doing it.

This is even more important when it comes to children's interactions with each other. Immature minds sometimes struggle with strong emotions and impulse control; modeling provides an overwhelmed child an opportunity to diffuse a tense situation with empathy and compassion.

"If two children cannot agree upon an activity, and things seem to be degrading, you can and should intervene," says Bryant. But don't just order them to choose one activity or another. "Be with them as they start one game. Let them see how much you enjoy it. Tell the child who may be waiting his turn to for his preference how happy he is making his friend and you. Then stay with the children as they move to the next activity, and continue modeling good sportsmanship and empathy."

But what about situations involving children that seem insurmountable? The girl who will not stop biting? The boy who is abrasive and disrespectful no matter how many kind and specific requests you make of him. ("Taylor, in our home, we call each other by name instead of 'hey you' and wait respectfully until someone else has stopped speaking before we interrupt.") If a child's presence in your home negatively affects your family, and makes a future playdate a dubious proposition, you may just be tempted to ship the little horror off and leave it at that.

Doing this, however, deprives the parent(s) of that child an important opportunity to address a behavior that will ultimately limit the child's ability to socialize. You should say something.

"But approach it from a place of compassion," says Bryant. "Parents feel great pride in their children; any perceived criticism will be deeply felt. Consider 'sandwiching' what you have to say — something positive, then the constructive observation, followed by another positive."

Bryant suggests letting the other parent know you acknowledge and appreciate the different approaches and values you may have, but say that a specific behavior or attitude has had a negative impact on your home. For example:

Emma is a polite girl, and so precocious! I really enjoy having conversations with her. However, Emma has been telling Ivy she is 'stupid' because Ivy isn't reading yet. When I ask Emma to appreciate Ivy for the good friend she is, Emma responds to me by insisting my daughter is 'stupid.' Would you be willing to have a conversation with Emma about her use of this word, and the way it makes others feel? Emma is so funny and clever, I want her to be able to develop great friendships.

Whatever you do, " stay away from phrases that could be taken as judgmental or condemning," says Bryant. None of us is perfect, and our children aren't either. If you approach the conversation with respect and appreciation for the other person's feelings and position, you are far likelier to be heard and heeded.

In the end, Bryant says, "Children are integral pieces of any healthy community. The more children understand they are loved and will be supported as functional members of that community, the better everyone is served."

Now go schedule that playdate.


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