Long, long ago, my best friend as a young child was my next door neighbor. We would go freely back and forth to each other’s homes, playing vivid imaginary games, being animals, princesses, and magical creatures of all kinds.
Unfortunately, we often left our younger siblings out – or forced them to be the enemies who always lost or the maids who always did all the dirty work. And once in a while, we did something that I would never have allowed my own kids to do because it was just too dangerous.
Playing with other children in their homes can be one of the joys of childhood. However, times have changed. Our children are often meeting other kids at school instead of next door. And we know now that providing enough supervision to keep kids safe while letting them have the chance to make mistakes and grow is one of our many jobs as parents.
When setting up playdates with kids who we think will enjoy spending time together, we usually think of logistics such as what time and which house. Assuming that other parents will have the same standards about safety and respect that we do because they are nice people and have great kids is normal. At Kidpower, we call these assumptions: “The Illusion of Safety,” because they can lull us into believing that everything is fine – until something suddenly goes wrong.
For each situation, make a realistic assessment of your child’s ability to speak up or refuse if someone does something against your safety rules – and to get help if anything makes them uncomfortable. Make sure that your child knows how to reach you or another adult caregiver at all times.
Have a frank conversation with the other parents about your expectations and, before you accept responsibility for their child, insist that they do the same with you. These conversations might be uncomfortable – but, as we teach in Kidpower, your children’s safety is more important than anyone’s discomfort.
Here are 8 questions to ask yourself and other parents as you are setting up a playdate in someone else’s home:
1. What is and is NOT okay with you? Sometimes there can be an issue is due to a difference in culture. For example, families might have very different ideas about kids playing naked in the water on a hot day – or seeing each other’s private areas. Sometimes there may be a difference in values – families have very different beliefs about teasing, for example, or what kinds of videos kids are allowed to watch. Sometimes there may be an issue due to a lack of understanding. For example, people who don’t have allergies might have a hard time believing that one little bite of something your child is allergic to could cause a problem. Having a clear agreement about what is and is not okay ahead of time can prevent a great deal of unpleasantness.
2. Will my child spending any time around older children or other adults? Visiting children are sometimes harmed by their friend’s older siblings, friends of those siblings, or neighbors – who may tease them or who do something unsafe, such as locking them in the closet, taking them out of the yard without permission, or molesting them.
3. Will you be there and available the whole time? Some people think nothing of leaving their and your kids with someone else for “just a few minutes” while they go to the store – and you want to know who is going to be in charge of your children.
4. Are there places you let children go without you with them? Kids going alone to the park down the street might seem normal to this family – but you want to know and decide yourself if your child is ready to handle this kind of independence and be aware of the potential hazards.
5. Are there guns in your home? If so, what kinds of safeguards do you have so that children do not get hold of them? Too many tragic accidents have happened with kids playing with guns, so we want to be aware of this hazard.
6. Do you supervise all use of smart phones, computers and television so that you know what children are seeing? Letting kids go unsupervised with technology can be as dangerous as leaving them alone in any public area without adequate preparation.
7. Will you be taking the children anywhere? You want to know where your children are, who is with them, how they will get there, and what they are doing.
8. Is there a pool, hot tub or other water feature nearby? During summertime especially, many playdates involve playing in the pool, or even in cooler weather, sometimes a hot tub. Knowing if the children will be in or near a private or open body of water, and how they will be supervised around it, is important in order to avoid tragic accidents. Even children who are good swimmers can get injured or surprised and find themselves in trouble in the water – and therefore need close supervision.
A parent’s response to your questions will help you to make the decision about whether or not playdates with this family will be in the best interests of your child. Finally, check in with your child before and after each playdate to review the safety rules and find out what went well, what didn’t, and how can you make things better.
Here are some more articles that can be of help:
Helicopters or Protectors? – How to tell the difference
Preparing Children for More Independence – A five-step plan from Kidpower
Resisting the Illusion of Safety
Published: June 25, 2014 | Last Updated: February 3, 2022