In the wee hours of the night, Wendy Morelli, a Toronto mom of two, was awoken by noises coming from her then eight-year-old son’s bedroom, where he was hosting a sleepover. The sleepover buddy was kicking the wall—the latest example of his bad behaviour that night. Earlier, he’d purposely splattered toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror.
“He wouldn’t listen to me. I had to escort my son out of his own room because his friend was keeping him up,” says Morelli. She checked on the guest throughout the night and, she says, “He never slept a wink.”
Although Morelli jokes about it now, at the time she was horrified. She would never tolerate this misbehaviour from her son, but it was someone else’s kid.
Julie Romanowski, a parenting coach and early-childhood consultant based in Vancouver, says it’s common for kids to test boundaries when outside their own home. Many of us have caught ourselves repeating, “In this house, we don’t (fill in the blank…).” But what if a quick admonishment doesn’t work? Is it ever OK to discipline a child who’s not your own? “That kid is in your care, and you absolutely have a right to call him out if he’s not respecting your boundaries,” Romanowski says. But she cautions against punishing a guest. Here’s how to manage this sticky situation.
1. Clear the air in advance Set aside time to discuss your rules with both the kid and his parents, especially if you don’t know the family well. This should be done prior to the playdate, advises Romanowski, so there are no surprises about acceptable behaviour. Open with something like, “I’ve heard that talking about expectations is a good, proactive idea. What do you think? When can we both chat with the kids?”
2. Give it time Now that your house rules have been made clear, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? Not necessarily. “Sometimes it takes kids time to adjust to the rules in a new environment,” says Kathy Lynn, a Vancouver parenting speaker and author. Try not to vent your frustration right off the bat. Your guest’s poor behaviour may be a temporary slip that can be managed with a quick reminder of your expectations. If the behaviour persists, call out the facts using non-judgmental language, suggests Romanowski. Try: “It looks as though this activity is too much for you kids to handle right now, so we need to figure out a solution. Let’s talk about what you could do instead.” Suggest a different activity or try moving them to another room. This takes the emphasis off the misbehaviour and leaves space for a calm discussion that doesn’t involve discipline, says Romanowski, who is not a fan of traditional punishments. “Treat it as problem solving instead of giving him a time out. Punishment doesn’t solve the issue.” Another variation on a time out, suggests Lynn, is telling the playdate he has to take a break and stay with you for a bit until he has calmed down.
3. Inform his parents Regardless of how minor you consider the indiscretion, make sure his parents are aware. “Full disclosure is important,” says Romanowski. “It really does take a village to raise a child, and there has to be an open line of communication.” Start with the positives, such as how much you appreciated it if their child apologized. If the entire playdate was a struggle, it doesn’t mean you have to ban the kid from your house. Some children get overtired or extra excited in another home, especially if it’s a sleepover. “Tell them that you’re happy to try again on another day, now that they know the rules,” says Lynn. “Kids are still trying to learn, so give them a second chance.”
Expert tips Tackle awkward parent convos with prompts from parenting coach Julie Romanowski:
1. “So how is your son at mealtimes? Anything I should know?”
2. “Your daughter was upset with me when I asked her to use her inside voice. Do you have any suggestions?”
3. “I love when our kids play superheroes together, but sometimes they really hurt each other. I wonder what the best approach would be to stop their fighting?”
A version of this article appeared in the February 2016 issue with the headline, "Playdates from hell," p. 53.
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