Can Johnny Come Over To Play?

"I have a problem with one of my son's friends. He has absolutely no respect for the "house rules" when he comes over to play. After every playdate, the place is a wreck, with toys all over the place. He never picks up after himself, and my son ends up completely overwhelmed with the clean-up afterwards."

"My daughter has a friend that I like, but sometimes she does sneaky things when she comes over for a playdate. For example, she'll take one of my daughter's toys and hide it, then say `innocently' that she has no idea where it is and even pretends to help my daughter look for it."

When our children choose friends who behave in ways that violate our values, it can create some tough choices for us as parents. I'm not talking about shockingly inappropriate behavior. Obviously, if the behavior is extreme, you'll have to insist that your child not see that friend. But most children's behavior isn't so outrageous that parents would be willing to completely "ban" him from the house. At the same time, it seems difficult for many parents to enforce the rules that communicate our values with someone other than our own children.

Truthfully, enforcing the "house rules" that communicate your values should not be so different with your child's friends than with your own child. The key in both cases is to communicate your expectations respectfully, honestly and clearly, and to set up ahead of time some well-defined consequences for rules that get broken. Let's look at the different components that will help you communicate your rules or values to your children's friends.

* Respect. Many times parents feel doubtful about enforcing "house rules" with a child's friend because the way in which they speak to their child is not the same way they would speak to another person's child. "How many times have I told you to put the games away before you get out your art supplies? Aren't you ever going to learn?" or "I can't believe you'd hide something and then pretend you had nothing to do with it! When are you going to start being honest?" are not things one would feel comfortable saying to a playdate. Yet often this is exactly the way parents speak to their own children. Likewise, many parents use a different tone of voice with their own children - tense, loud, angry - to communicate that they are "serious" and mean what they say. Clearly we cannot speak to someone else's child in this manner. So often, parents simply say nothing at all to the visiting child. This is a mistake. In remaining silent, we send the unspoken message to our children that we don't have enough conviction in our values to enforce them across the board. This is not to imply, however, that you should scream and yell at your visitors. Rather, begin by practicing a respectful tone of voice and using respectful words with your own children. You'll probably find that you can get effective results without yelling and being harsh. With a little practice, you'll find that a respectful tone will help you feel more comfortable asking your child's playdate to conform to the rules of the house as well.

* Communicate honestly and clearly. Many times we believe we're being clear with children when in reality we're not. Saying "I really don't like it when there are too many toys out at a time" or "It's not nice to be sneaky," tells the child nothing about what you would like her to do about it. An honest, clear communication includes your own feelings and an "I would like you to..." statement. If a child drags all the toys in the house out without a thought of putting them back, you might say "I feel uncomfortable with too many toys being out. I would like you to put the `Twister' game and puzzles away before you play with the Legos." In the case of a child behaving in a sneaky way, you might take her aside and say "I feel confused because I saw you hide that toy, but you're telling Elizabeth that you don't know anything about it. I know you're probably trying to `fool' Elizabeth, but I'm uncomfortable with that kind of teasing and I would like you to tell her where the toy is." In both statements, you're asking the children to respect your feelings as well as your values. In addition you're communicating your specific expectations so that there's no guesswork about what behavior you'd like to see.

* Use well-defined consequences. Consequences are not punishment; therefore there is no reason that they cannot be used with a playdate similar to the way you would use them with your own child. Especially in situations where you know a child is likely to get a lot of toys out, or break certain rules, it's often helpful to sit down with both children for one minute prior to playing and tell the children what the consequences will be if they take out too many toys, get too rough, "tease" each other in an unkind way, or break any other "house rule." You might say something like "In this house we only get a few toys out at a time. If I see that too many toys are being taken out, I'm going to ask you to put them back. Then, you can either put them back, or we'll take a ten minute break from playing. Does everyone understand?" Similarly, you can emphasize that "In this house we believe that it's important not to `tease' each other. If I see unkind `teasing' I'll speak to you about it. You can either apologize to the other person at that point, or we'll end the playdate. Do you understand?"

* Add an element of fun. While all of this may sound a bit strict, there's no reason not to include something fun to help the children remember the rules. For example, you might say "We need a code word to help you remember this rule. What could it be? How about `dishrag?' or maybe `spotted tigers?' If I see a rule being broken, I'll call out one of these words, and you'll get another chance." Children love play, magic, and "codes," and when we engage their imaginations we often engage their cooperation as well.

While it may be difficult to conceive of being assertive with your children's friends, many parents tell me that once they've taken the initiative, and made the rules clear, it's not uncommon for their children's friends to prefer coming over to play rather than having playdates at their own houses. Children appreciate well defined boundaries, and if communicated with respect, you'll not only strengthen your values in your child's eyes, but you'll win the respect of their friends as well.