The First Rule of Sleepover Safety: Meet the Parents
Wondering how safe your child is at a friend's house? Parents and experts alike say you have to make the effort to get to know that other family better, whether your child is very young or in the teen years. Introduce yourself to the other parents, ask questions about supervision and safety, and even discuss some of your own house rules.
By Lisa Kosan
Along with beautiful weather, spring and summer can bring waves of anxiety for parents whose children do just what children do best: make new friends. We may be proud of our kids' growing independence, but we're a bit wary of these unknown kids and their families.
Remember the days when "play date" meant you got to visit your friends for coffee and brought your infant, toddler or preschooler along for the ride? You chose the time, the place and the people.
If your kids are now elementary-school age, tweens or teens, you're probably acutely aware that they prefer to arrange their own get-togethers with people of their own choosing. Kids who've hit the ripe old age of 11 may already be asking for a ride to the corner near their friend's house - and balking if you suggest meeting the parents.
But meet them you must, say plenty of parents and parenting pros. For safety's sake, and your own sense of security, you need to know that the parents of the other child are home, will continue to be home and are supervising both their child and yours. And you need to know that the home your child is entering is a safe, secure, comfortable place to be.
It gets harder the older your kids get, to be sure. As tweens and teens become more independent - and less enamored with their parents' involvement in anything they do - parents say they're often more likely to drop their adolescent off in the driveway of a friend's house and pick the youth up in the same location, never even getting out of the car.
"You have to take the first step to introduce yourself to your child's friend's parents," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an author and lecturer who specializes in the topic of building children's character. "You have to make it your house rule that, no matter what, you will always introduce yourself before dropping your child off for a party or any other gathering. Just don't expect your child to send you a thank-you card."
Breaking the Ice
Outwardly, you might begin that meet-and-greet by offering a phone number where you can be reached if needed. But what you're really trying to do is size up the other parent, Borba says. "Tell them that you just want to verify their house rules because you assume that they'd want to know yours."
The key is to convey to the other parent the notion that you have strict rules about supervision and acceptable activities. Mention the obvious, like peanut allergies or fear of dogs, Borba advises, then toss in a few of your own house rules: time limits on video games or prohibitions on Web sites such as MySpace. Tell the other parent that you never leave your own child in the home unsupervised during a play date or party. Ask if there are rules about swimming pool safety or if there's a gun in the house and whether it's locked up.
"If you feel funny about asking some of these questions, make up an excuse. Say there was a family tragedy involving a gun if you have to," Borba says. "Sometimes it's easier that way, to put the paranoia on yourself, but you'll sleep much better at night."
How Far Can You Go?
Psychologist Anthony Wolf, Ph.D., author of numerous parenting books, including Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall, acknowledges that finding out about other kids and their parents can be "tricky."
"If your kid seems to be developing a new friendship, invite that child over first so you can get to know him or her," he suggests. "If you can't do that, ask your own kid to tell you what she's like, what her family's like, or how she does in school."
Be careful, however, that you don't convey prejudices, Wolf adds. If you ask what someone does for a living, don't imply that some types of jobs are more acceptable than others.
Getting to know the parents is tougher, Wolf says. Your initial conversations with them can alternate between casual chatting and more probing questions. "You don't want it to seem like you're doing a security check," he says.
You could also do some detective work by asking other parents you know about the new family or even observing them during sports practices or at the park. But there's a limit to what you can do, legally and tactfully.
The bottom line, Wolf says, is that "You are taking a certain amount of chance by letting your child go to another person's house. That's part of being a parent today."
Consider, too, that you might need to adjust the level of insulation you want for your growing child, Wolf says. Is it still realistic, or even healthy? What, after all, are the real risks a child can face? Inadequate supervision and being exposed to domestic violence are legitimate reasons for intervention and ending visits to another child's home. The grayer areas involve exposure to violent video games, television programs that you might not allow, or swear words. Trying to limit contact with these kinds of things becomes a lot harder as your child gets older. The best you can do is to continue teaching your child your family's values and expectations.
Maintaining Your Comfort Level
Borba suggests having a code that your child can use when visiting another home. If an uncomfortable situation arises - risky behavior, violence, or drug and alcohol use, for example - your child can call home using a predetermined phrase, such as "I have a sore throat," and you'll pick her up, no questions asked.
Barbara Kennedy uses such a code with her middle-school-age daughter and teenage son. She also admits that she's one of those "meet-and-greet" moms who always introduces herself to the host parents. "My son used to be mortified," Kennedy says with a laugh, "but that was just too bad. He'd want me to drop him off a block away, but I'd go to the door, say hello, hopefully get a look around at who else was at the party. I feel like it's better to be safe than sorry."
Sandy Gutierrez, a stepmother of two daughters, is another stickler for the meet-and-greet rule. She recalls an invitation her now nearly 18-year-old daughter received to a local barbecue.
">"I reminded her that I would go in and meet the parents or she couldn't go," Gutierrez says. "She pouted all the way there. The other mom told me that I was the only parent who came in to say hello. The others just dropped their kids and drove off."
With 10-year-old twin girls, Judy Cohen is no stranger to play dates. She's also run into some parents who don't share her own sense of thoroughness and safety.
"Once, on vacation, the girls met someone they wanted to invite to the resort barbecue," Cohen says.
"When I called to make arrangements, the mother didn't ask me many questions. It was a little bit uncomfortable taking responsibility for someone I barely knew and I thought it was odd that the other mother seemed so casual about the arrangement."
On her own turf, Cohen says she generally meets other parents ahead of a get-together. "I wouldn't just let my kids go over to somebody's house without knowing the parents. Or, if I've met them once, I might try to hang out a little bit when I drop them off, talk to the mom, maybe see the playroom.
There's no checklist of attributes that I'm looking for. I just try to get a feel for how their family operates."
A Word about Teens
Teenagers outwardly resist what they consider your intrusive or "butt-insky" behavior. But at some level - and they will never admit this to you - they appreciate the fact that you care.
Gutierrez's older daughter understands the rules of engagement and there's little debate when she heads out with friends. "Now she offers the information that the other parents are going to be home and gives us the phone number," her mom says. "She knows that she has to call us from a land-line - not a cell phone - when she gets to a friend's house so we know from caller ID that she's where she's supposed to be."
Studies have found that the values, family rules and standards you teach your kids in their early years minimize the risks they'll take when they're teens - a time when your opportunities for meeting their friends and their friends' parents greatly diminish.
"Teenagers adamantly want you to know as little as possible about what they do," Wolf says. "They will tell you that they are deeply offended that you want to know who their friends are."
Still, Borba says, parents need to be savvier about what their kids like to do when they're not supervised and whom they're with. Statistics show that first sexual encounters happen at home. The first drink - usually around fifth-grade - takes place in an unsupervised home. And adolescents' accessible drug of choice - cough syrup - is in everyone's medicine chest.
"We are so busy and exhausted that we've lost touch with who lives next door to us and who our friends' kids are," Borba says. "But we still have to get to know our own kids, their friends and their friends' parents."
Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, by Michele Borba, Jossey-Bass, 2002. Borba makes the case that kids who develop empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance and fairness will be more self-reliant when not under their parents' supervision.
Get Out of My Life, but First Can You Drive Cheryl & Me to the Mall: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager, by Anthony E. Wolf; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2002. An entertaining, informative classic with practical tips on staying one step ahead of your teen.
How to Keep Your Children Safe, by Yvonne Vissing, University Press of New England, 2006. Offers advice on ensuring that your kids are safe under the care or supervision of other adults, from childcare providers or camp staff to anyone transporting your child.
365 Ways to Keep Kids Safe: How to Make Your Child's World Safer, Ages Birth to 16, by Don Keenan, Balloon Press, 2006. This example-rich book describes how to prepare and protect your child from everyday risks.
Lisa Kosan is an award-winning writer and the mother of two boys.