I have four kids aged 2 to 11, three of them are at their prime “play date” years, and the two older ones have their own cellphones (which means they can organize their own play dates and only need to secure parental approval at the final step). As a result, we have hordes of kids over almost every day. In fact, we should replace our front door with a revolving door and a click counter to keep track of the foot traffic going in and out. Occasionally either my child or one of their friends gets a nutty idea in their head and something boneheaded happens. That is just kids being kids. My daughter once complained to me after a birthday party that her friends trashed her bedroom. Another time, one of my kids’ friends ate nine popsicles during a sleepover. This is an inevitability. So what to do?
I think there is only one way to handle it: that is, hold your children responsible for the actions of their friends.
On the scale of parenting maneuvers, this particular move carries a high level of difficulty. We all know it is hard enough to get kids to clean up after themselves. Getting them to clean up after their friends is even more difficult. But the most difficult of all is teaching your kids to control their friends so that messes never materialize in the first place. As hard as it might be for parents to teach this lesson, it is infinitely harder for kids to implement it. I was a kid a mere three decades ago, and I still remember how difficult it is to say to your friends, “That is a dumb idea so let’s not do it.”
When this sort of problem crops up, my wife and I explain to our kids that first of all, we as parents are not going to directly punish their friends. That eliminates my kids’ ability to use the excuse, “I didn’t do it….X did.” As long as they were in the room or in the vicinity, they are responsible. I also ask them to pretend they are Daddy and to chose between three options available to any parent: 1) do nothing and hope the problem does not reoccur, 2) deny future play dates with the uncontrolled friend, 3) allow future play dates with uncontrolled friend but hold their own child responsible for messes, breakages, stains, and broken objects. When my children are faced with these choices they want to choose Option #1 but they know they cannot justify it to Daddy so they reluctantly go for Option #3.
Once they chosen Option #3, then I like to ask them to think of an appropriate punishment. Forcing child to come up with their own punishment is a good way to earn their agreement or buy-in on the administration of the punishment. I find that my kids will err on the side of over-punishing themselves because going too lightly only forces them, again, to justify to Daddy why they they deserve parole inside of jail time. Also, punishing yourself, I think, leaves a bigger impression. So if punishment for allowing your friend to eat nine popsicles is that you the child have to buy a new box of popsicles out of your allowance money is more memorable than being banned from watching tv for 3 days. The idea is that when that friend comes over the next time and reaches for the freezer, your child remembers what happened last time and steps in on their own rather than shelling out more allowance money to finance their friends’ frozen treat habit.
Teaching your kids now to control their friends could pay off handsomely in the future when they grow into teenagers with driver’s licenses and much more freedom to make potentially more disastrous mistakes. Because someday my child, or one of their friends, instead of eating nine popsicles will drink nine beers or do nine shots of tequila. As a parent, I don’t want my kids to take their first stab at intervening to stop a friend from making a stupid move when so much is on the line. So teaching your children now to control themselves and their friends’ behavior now might ensure that someday they make it home alive.