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Are your kids following other parents’ rules?

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters urges parents to trust their instincts in raising children.

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #11:
Don’t Cave In to Other Families’ Rules
Sure, you wouldn’t jump off a bridge just because your neighbor did, but would you live by their rules just because your kids want you to or because you’re too embarrassed to disagree? That’s what you may be doing if you’re caving in to other families’ rules and standards. Learn how to gracefully take the rap for being a bit overprotective and old-fashioned. The old adage is still true — better safe than sorry.

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Okay, your 11-year-old daughter has just returned from school with a sleepover invitation from a new classmate. This is usually no problem, because you know and like your daughter’s friends. But what do you do when the child is new to you, or even worse, when you go to pick up your child at her friend’s house, and you discover that her parents have some very questionable attitudes in running their home.

Hopefully you’ve developed your family code of values well enough so that your child understands and abides by it in terms of behavior and safety issues. But what about your daughter’s new friend — do she and her family respect the same values and rules?

Often, they won’t — every family is different, and what’s important to you may not carry the same weight with other parents. You may be a neat freak or stuck on nutritional issues but flexible when it comes to your kids’ appearance or bedtimes. In my experience, things like that are usually not worth winning the battle and losing the war over. In other words, the small stuff can be seen as negotiable and shouldn’t determine who your kids are allowed to hang out with when spending free time. Where the line should be drawn, though, is on the big stuff — issues of safety and morality.

Many of my clients face this type of conflict and come to see me in order to resolve problems before they get out of hand.

Kristin and her folks, Brenda and Mike, came to counseling to resolve budding conflicts regarding differences in how she was being raised in comparison with her two best friends, Jamie and Jeannie. The three girls, in the fourth grade at the same school, were practically joined at the hip. Together since kindergarten, they shared the joys and agonies of childhood and grew to depend upon one another for fun as well as support. Even the parents were close, carpooling to school and babysitting in a pinch, helping each other out when necessary. Two years ago, Jamie’s parents separated and later divorced, but her mother stayed in close contact with the other families and continued to promote the relationship among the three girls.

In early grade school, when the kids tended to take their cues more from their folks than from their friends, the going was fairly smooth. As the girls went to parochial school and uniforms were mandatory, dress was not an issue, and extracurricular activities tended to revolve around dance and gymnastics. But as the children matured, Kristin’s parents became uneasy with some of the changes that they were seeing in the trio. Jeannie began to wear makeup on the weekends, and Jamie’s mother had apparently backed off of some of the rules regarding bedtime, telephone curfews, and TV/movie ratings. During sleepovers at her friends’ homes, it wasn’t unusual for Kristin to watch scary movies or the “Austin Powers” series, which Brenda and Mike found inappropriate. When Kristin came home on Saturday morning with a truly expanded vocabulary (not to her parents’ liking at all), Brenda had had enough. She felt that the other girls were moving too fast for her comfort zone and that Kristin needed some new guidelines. And that’s when the family hit a speed bump.

Brenda and Mike found it tantamount to changing the rules of the game midway, since the three girls had always been able to do the same activities throughout their relationship. Kristin was angry when her folks began to restrict her visits with her two best friends, and she honestly felt that her parents were being unfair. That led to some talking back and eventually some heavy-duty timeouts. The family was getting nowhere with this issue, and they finally landed in my office.

After hearing all of their views — Mom’s, Dad’s, and Kristin’s — it was apparent that compromise and communication were in order. First, Kristin needed to accept that her family had rules that were, apparently, different in some aspects from her friends’. Many values were shared, but some were different. Second, Brenda and Mike needed to prioritize what differences were really important and to focus upon those that involved Kristin’s physical, moral, and emotional health. Third, the parents needed to specify and clarify what were appropriate and inappropriate activities and behaviors for their daughter, without putting down or judging the other families’ decisions. Last, Kristin, as the kid, would have to accept — notice that I didn’t say enjoy — her parents’ views and to tone down the grumping, griping, and complaining that “it’s not fair.” Fair or not, her folks were responsible for her upbringing, and if they didn’t want their child to view horror flicks or R-rated movies, talk on the phone beyond curfew, or dress like a teenager at 10 years of age, that was their decision.

Brenda and Mike were also faced with the problem of describing their concerns and decisions to the other parents. We discussed ways of communicating their wishes without appearing to be disparaging or judgmental. Kristin also would need to educate her friends about her new limits and help them to creatively find activities that were fun and acceptable to all three families. It was a learning process, and not totally comfortable, but they found that directly dealing with the issues, rather than dancing around them, was the most effective and efficient solution to this sticky problem.

As a parent, one of your most important roles is that of protector as well as provider. Being politely assertive, asking appropriate and pointed questions, and keeping a sense of humor as well as a sense of balance are requisite when guiding your children into and through friendships. Involvement with your children’s friends is key in helping you to gain information upon which to base your judgments, and ultimately decisions, about acceptance of other families’ rules.

Living the Law

Let’s take a look at some of the forbidden fruit that may crop up at friends’ homes and the best ways in which to handle these issues. Obviously, these will change as your child grows, but there are a few generic principles that I’ve found are applicable to most situations.

Take the rap for being nosy, overprotective, or neurotic. I’ve learned from my clinical practice that folks are much more open to dealing with your self-criticism than the perception of being criticized themselves. My personal favorite when I’m in this sticky situation is to begin the conversation with something like, “I know that this is a bit neurotic, but... .” Or a good fallback is, “I admit, I’m known for my overprotectiveness, but... ,” and then I fill in the blank with my concern. I might add, “Will the kids be allowed to watch R-rated or scary movies during the sleepover?” If the answer if “yes,” then I’d request that something else be chosen, letting it be known that my kid scares easily and will be a frequent visitor to our bed for the next few weeks, which I would like to avoid. This tactic not only gives the other parent permission to consider me the loopy one, but it also provides the information that I need as well as sending the message that my child shouldn’t be allowed an HBO free-for-all.

Be sure that your child is clear about the boundaries of acceptability. Give your child some credit, as well as responsibility, when it comes to staying within your guidelines. Your kid knows if she’s allowed to wear makeup or go to the mall without an adult present. Expect her to follow your rules, or at least to call and ask permission for an exception to be made. Applaud her honesty when she volunteers information about changes in the evening’s lineup — it takes guts to call the folks to ask if it’s okay to include boys in the movie plans. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the idea, but at least let her know that you appreciate her honesty and communication.

Never, ever be reticent to inquire about real or toy weapons. It’s not only your right but also your responsibility to know if the kids will have access to BB guns, “toy” bows and arrows, or other play weapons. Many families do not allow their children to play with toy weapons, as the parents believe that these toys are “gateways” to the real McCoy, or that playing with a toy bow and arrow can be dangerous. (My own son, at age 3, was struck in the eye by a friend’s toy arrow — luckily it was a small cut and did not damage his vision.) If a weapon-free environment (be it toy or real) is part of your family’s code of values, then this issue is most likely worth digging in your heels.

Many of the moms and dads that I work with are concerned not only with play weapons but also with real guns being in the host homes. I’ve found that it’s usually best to be direct and forward about this issue — no beating around the bush here. Ask the host if they possess a gun and how it is stored. If you feel even the least bit uncomfortable with the answer, don’t allow your child to visit their home. It’s just not worth your worry and the possibility of injury. Perhaps the weapon can be removed during your child’s visit, but many folks won’t go to the trouble to do so, or you may have doubts that they will actually follow through with the temporary removal.

Let them explore, but get to know their friends. Socialization at every age is important to your child’s cognitive and emotional development. You can only be the den mother so many times, and then you have to let go and allow your child to explore other people’s homes, values, and rules. To lessen your anxiety, try to get to know your child’s friends and their parents well — via telephone, personal visits, play dates together at the park, or volunteering at school activities and field trips. You’ll be able to get an idea of their friends’ family situation, and most likely you’ll migrate to interfamily relationships that reflect your own family’s code of values.

Give in a little. As your kids grow, you should never allow them to stay in a situation that you feel is immoral or unsafe. However, you may have to give a little when it comes to the smaller stuff. For instance, perhaps the kids will be offered more junk food than you’re comfortable with, or the bedtime is too late for your taste. Think about it — will this really hurt your child a week from now? Probably not, as long as you let her know that this is not what you would allow in your home. Tell her that other people have different values and rules, and within certain parameters you’re willing to let her experience them. If you see, though, that your kid is becoming rebellious to your own rules or developing an “attitude” because the Jones family does it differently, then it may be time to tone down her visits with the Jones clan.

Finally, stick to the five W’s — the who, what, where, when, and why of the visit. Especially as your children grow into the tween and teen years, when kids start to clam up, it may be all you can get out of them. But every time your child leaves the house you absolutely need to know:

  • Who’s he with?
  • What’s he doing?
  • Where will he be the whole time? (Make sure you know if he’s getting into a car with older kids or heading somewhere else to hang out after you drop him off.)
  • When will this happen and when will they be done?
  • Why in the heck do they want to do it anyway?

Don’t hesitate to verify these plans with the other kids’ parents.

Let your kid know that ultimately he is responsible for his behavior and that later and greater freedoms (attending sleepaway camp, driving the car) will depend upon the honesty and common sense shown now while visiting with friends. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have tried to make this point to an 11-, 12-, or 13-year-old. All of them eventually understand what I am talking about, but some of the especially ornery ones fight acceptance of my point. The principle at stake is that parental trust doesn’t just happen overnight. It is based upon Mom and Dad watching the kid’s behaviors, choices, and motivations throughout his lifetime.

Children who tend to fudge, omit, or downright lie about details of their behavior or whereabouts are not likely to be trusted as teenagers. I tell them that Mom and Dad are not dumb — they know that the best predictor of the future is the past. And that although people do change (thank goodness!), the process tends to take a while; often parents need enough time to view a pattern of change in behavior to believe that the child has shown consistent good judgment and now truly believes that honesty is the best policy.

On the other hand, kids who can be counted upon to do what they promise to do, to be where they say they will be, and to communicate effectively with their parents are often granted many freedoms and choices about who their friends are and what they are allowed to do. So, if you find yourself in a discussion with your 11-year-old about whether she’ll be allowed to get her driver’s license at age 16, emphasize that there is a strong correlation between her current behavior and what her future privileges will be.

NEXT WEEK: Don’t be afraid to snoop on your kids

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of . No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.