Other People's Kids: controlling the chaos on preschool playdates

It's mailbag time again. Today we're going to discuss managing unruly children in your home . . . when they're not (exclusively) yours.

The Question:

Hi, Kendra!
I enjoy reading your blog, and I find your posts on discipline and family culture particularly encouraging. I only have one toddler and another baby on the way, but your articles help me feel more confident in the belief that it is possible to raise a large family without living in constant chaos and unpleasantness.

I would love to hear your input on how you structure play-date type situations and how you handle being hostess to other people's (small and somewhat naughty) children. I enjoy getting together regularly with two other moms and their children. The problem is that the older two kids (one three, one two-and-a-half; neither of whom are mine) spend most of the time trying to take away whatever toy the other one has and discretely "bullying" the three babies. We three moms spend almost the entire time correcting and redirecting the kiddos, but it's all pretty gentle and ineffective. I would expect more obedience from my own kid, but it's hard to know how to handle other people's kids even when they are giving my own younger toddler a hard time.

I would love to know how you (a). establish house rules for play dates at your house. (b). handle the toddler impulse for uncivilized behavior among a group of toddlers and preschoolers. (c.) handle situations in which your child is enduring a bit of unpleasantness from older kids (do you step in? try not to? I don't want my kid to be too coddled, but I also don't want him learning bad habits that he will probably repeat when the new baby is born).

It doesn't help that I don't feel fully confident in my assessment of how much fighting and naughtiness can be prevented and how much is just part of the territory (although, when one of the kids licked my butter dish after being told he couldn't have any more....I figure that could be preventable, right?).

Thanks so much for any feedback!

The Answer:

Whew. This one is a toughie, Anna.

I feel like I really come down on BOTH sides of this issue. Philosophically, I'm all for just dealing with my own kids. And not trying to boss other people's kids around. So, if we're at the park and a kid is hogging the swing, I'd just tell my kid, "The swings are busy, we'll do something else." I wouldn't go up and ask the mom if we could have a turn. But then if we're on the swing and some other mom asks me if her kid can have a turn, I'd tell my kid, "We're going to let this boy swing for a while." Because, really, my kids are pretty squared away, and probably they're not going to flip out. And if they do, we can use it as a learning experience. So, it's all fine.

But it's somehow more complicated when it's all going down at my house. We host weekly clubs and classes and lots of parties here, so there are always "other people's kids" around. And the thing with other people's kids is that they have other people's rules and expectations. Or, occasionally, no rules or expectations at all. It can be tricky to find that balance of insisting that other kids treat my home and my children with the proper respect, but not stepping on the parenting toes of friends, or just spending all my time at get togethers chasing kids about and laying down the law. That's no fun for anyone. I do it when I have to, but . . .

I really try to figure out how to prevent the most common of the preschool playdate problems before they have a chance to happen.

I think it's great to let kids work things out amongst themselves. I'm all about that. But I think that, as a concept, it's really more appropriate for kids closer to the age of reason. Kids under six or so are, by definition, pretty unreasonable, and can't be counted upon to see any side but their own. They need guidance.

With my own kids, it's possible to set up a system of rules and behavioral expectations that even very young siblings can learn to coexist within, but it's difficult to apply a system like that to kids from other families, unless they are a regular part of our family dynamic.

So, practically speaking, free for all type play dates with a set of toys that "belongs" to one kid, but are new and exciting to the others are always going to be challenging.

I used to be a part of a moms' rosary group that met one morning per week at different people's houses. The community I found among those other Catholic moms of little kids was truly life changing, but the play date part of the meetings could be stressful. My kids are not allowed to run around like little tornadoes playing with every different toy in the room. And they are not allow to dump toy bins. But different families have different rules. Some kids are totally allowed to do that. After a few hosting attempts involving messes and unhappy kids, I just started putting only few toys out that were geared toward babies, and moving the couch in front of the toy closet, so no one could get anything else out. Without fun messes to make in the playroom, the bigger kids would all just go play outside. Eventually, the group has started meeting at area parks instead of in homes, and that seems to be a lot less trouble. There's less fighting, and less dumping out of every toy bin in the room while the moms are chatting.

I really recommend outdoor play dates whenever that's possible. If it's not, (here's where I'd usually make a Canada joke, but . . . I'm going to have to go with, sorry everywhere but Southern California) you might have more success with a more specific activity at a playdate. Like, everyone plays with playdough, or everyone paints. I don't mean an art project that's going to require the moms to help do it, but just one thing that there would be enough of to go around, so there's less looking-around-to-see-what-other-kids-have-that-I-want. So, basically, prevention of unpleasantness, because that's my first goal.

But, if that's not practical, or if I tried it, and it didn't work and there was still unpleasantness, I'd try to address any particular situation with my own child first. If my son came to me to tattle, I'd say, "Tell him in a firm voice that you don't like that." But that's not always the way things go down. If I saw a child ripping toys out of another child's hands, and his own mom didn't say anything to him, I'd handle it the same way I would if my own child were the perpetrator. I'd walk over and squat down and put my hand on the toy in question and say, calmly but firmly, "In this house, we don't take toys away from other children. I'm going to put this away so that it doesn't cause any more unhappiness between friends." And then I'd just walk away with it and put it out of sight. Usually that works and I just keep doing it until the kids figure out that if they want to have any toys left they should stop fighting over them. As with any parenting-type practices involving other people's kids, you do run the risk of offending another mom. So, I try to be quick and discreet about it. Or I just shrug and smile when I get back to the other moms in a kids-will-be-kids kind of way, to try to diffuse any tension.

The same goes for our basic Tierney House Rules: In our house . . . We don't jump on the couch. We don't play in the bedrooms when we have people over. We don't hit the TV. I remind other people's kids of our house rules in a calm but firm way, "Hey, Suzy, in our house, we don't play in the bedrooms when other kids are over. Anita will be right back, please wait for her here." I've really never had that sort of thing escalate into unpleasantness. And as my own kids get older, I expect THEM to remember, share, and enforce our family rules. Because they are on Team Tierney.

As for food, that one has been a learning experience for me as well. My own kids can mostly handle food being out at their level without making huge messes with it, or being gross with it. But, often times, other people just handle things differently, maybe their kids aren't used to having All The Snacks available. It's not my job to teach other people's kids how to eat snacks, but like you, I prefer my butter un-licked. So, now, I keep food up on counters, rather than on coffee tables, because I don't want to have to supervise it all the time. Again, in situations like this, prevention of problems is always going to be the least painful way to go, in my opinion. But some kids are climbers, and very dedicated to butter-licking. So, I also just try not to get too attached to any food I put out at a playdate or party. Some things just aren't going to be useable afterwards.

And I try to remember that there are lots of different explanations for how other people's kids are behaving in my home. When I was the mom of just one or two littles it was easy to get offended at what I might have perceived as a lack of respect for my home and hospitality and children. But as I've been doing this longer and met more and more moms, I've come to understand that . . .

1. Stuff that bugs me doesn't necessarily bug other people. Maybe it really just doesn't bother them when their kids do that in their own homes to their own stuff. Different people have different standards. Maybe some stuff I let my kids do bugs them.

2. Maybe their children's behavior does bug them, but they are just maxed out right now. We all know how hard motherhood can be. Especially at the beginning. Maybe that mom isn't getting much support at home, maybe she feels like she's on them all the time and she's exhausted and all she wants is to just hang out with some grownups and not yell at her kids for a couple hours, come what may. Now that's not an ideal situation, obviously. But I've learned the hard way that there is a WRONG WAY to offer parenting advice. In fact, most of the possible ways of offering parenting advice are the wrong ways. But by continuing to be a supportive friend, and inviting her over, and by having kids that appear to be less exhausting than her kids, perhaps she'll ask me how I do it, and I could give her some advice, or steer her towards a blog I find helpful.

3. Maybe her kids are tougher than my kids. There are a lot of genuine behavioral issues that aren't visible to the casual observer. It sounds like you know these moms well enough to know whether or not that's the case. But in my own experience, hosting events as often as we do, I've met a handful of kiddos who really do need to be held to a different standard, because God made them different. I've talked about it with my kids as they get old enough to comprehend it, and, with some guidance, they can become much more understanding about what to expect when those friends come over.

One thing I wouldn't really worry about is other kids' bad behavior affecting your son's behavior, once he's not in their presence. Kids are remarkable in their ability to compartmentalize. They know exactly what they can get away with at home that isn't allowed at preschool, for instance. As long as your family rules are consistent at home, and you're clear about your expectations, exposure to other kids with other family rules isn't going to change your son's behavior. He might need some reminders, even some reminders that involve sitting in the corner, but then he'll be back with the program.

Anyway, like I said, tough situation. And multifaceted. I hope this helps a little.


For more parenting philosophy-type thoughts, you may enjoy . . .

How we deal with discipline, in general:
And how we deal with toddlers, specifically:
And how we get our kids on Team Tierney:

Creating a Family Culture

Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.

P.S. As if that wasn't quite enough of me for one day . . . I'm also at Blessed is She today, explaining all about how YOU are a superhero.

"Today’s readings from Ezekiel and Matthew can be pretty well summed up by another familiar Bible verse, Luke 12:48: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.”

Perhaps you remember when it was Uncle Ben, saying it to Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” But it’s the same thing.

None of us was bitten by a radioactive spider, or injected with a super-soldier-serum, or born an Amazon-Princess and given a magic lasso made from Aphrodite’s girdle.

Nope. For us, it’s way better than that. . . ."