I gave birth to four children. But on any given day, I have anywhere from six to eight hanging about. One day recently there were enough kids to form two full-sized baseball teams.
For the most part, I am pleased. After all, I know where my kids are, what they are doing and with whom. It is no secret this is one of the biggest ways to combat everything from delinquency to drug abuse. But I have to admit there are times when I whisper to my kids, "can't you guys go play at THEIR house?"
Once kids are old enough to venture past their own yards without their moms, they need a safe, friendly, welcoming environment to venture to. Sometimes that's another responsibility that falls to you.
Dr. Martins Adeoye, child psychiatrist at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn, says that creating a safe, yet kid-friendly space is the first step toward success. "You really should identify a playroom or an area where the kids can hang out," Adeoye says. "The area needs to be a defined location filled with things of interest to your child and their friends. It is important to include your child in the planning process. Children are perceptive and they know what they'd like to do, what should be in that space."
Allowing children to be a part of the planning process will instill pride and ownership. Adeoye says that not only will your child have more respect for the area themselves, but also will demand more respect from their friends.
Mimi Doe, author of Nurturing Your Teenager's Soul: A Practical Approach to Raising a Kind, Honorable, Compassionate Teen, says when creating a kid-friendly space, try to create a place that doesn't have too many strings attached. "You are going to be uptight if the kids are in a room with beautiful breakable objects," Doe says. "The space you create for your child and their friends should make the kids feel like it is a place where they can chill."
Doe also stresses that while the goal is to create a special place kids can call their own, parents need to keep it somewhat accessible. Kids need supervision, even (and especially) older kids. "I often tell parents, if the space is in the basement (or removed) put something like a refrigerator in that space and keep a few things you can go down and get so you can check up on them without them realizing that you are checking up on them."
Balancing privacy and supervision can be tricky, says Dave Janas of Lombard. Janas, father of two boys, usually has between one and five extra kids in his house. "As kids get older, they want more privacy. You have to learn how to balance this with maintaining interest in their lives."
Janas says his boys and their friends usually hang out in the basement or play video games in the front room. Janas says he or his wife is always within earshot.
Doe stresses, in her book, that if boundaries are to be maintained, not only should an adult be present, but fully aware and awake. Never go up to bed leaving your kids to tend to themselves. The possibilities are just too tempting.
Creating ground rules and consequences
You must create clear boundaries and you must be up front about them. Doe says parents should discuss time limits with their children, like when a friend can and cannot be over, any curfews or meal time expectations. Make sure everyone-including the friends-know the house rules.
Talk about drinking, drugs, smoking, swearing and any other behavior you prohibit. Doe says don't forget things like noise levels--how loud can they play their music? Hold your child's friends to your rules as you would your own child. If your child's friend breaks a rule, hold that friend accountable, too.
Don't change the rules, Adeoye says. He says if you change a rule based on a child's behavior you run the risk of the child thinking of the rule as a punishment and you as just being mean. "If you find that you do have to change rules, make sure you let the kids know why you are changing them and why you think the change will make things better."
While you want your child's friends to be comfortable around you, both Adeoye and Doe say you never want to pass from parent to peer. Parameters must be set from the start and children must know up front that while you are there for them, will listen to, advise and support them, you will not keep secrets that could endanger them or another.
Feeding the neighborhood
One of the benefits of letting your child have friends over is that they learn how to be a good host. Janas says he encourages his kids to serve their friends food and to make sure they have drinks or anything else they need. Another reason is that kids, like adults, like to break bread with their friends-or at least share a snack. And, while there is no question that a child and his friends can eat you out of house and home, with the proper planning you can keep it under control.
The trick is in the shopping. Doe suggests inexpensive crowd pleasers such as microwave popcorn, saltine crackers and peanut butter, and meals that go a long way like spaghetti. I have found freeze pops, pretzels and pizza (cut into appetizer-sized pieces), peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese are big hits. What could be easier or cheaper than a pack of hot dogs?
Most kids don't mind generic and house brands or if food is bought at Aldi or warehouse stores like Costco and Sam's Club. Pop is fine, but so is Kool-Aid. Buy on sale. Buy in bulk.
"I fill my house with great food," says Doe. "I have even created a place in the kitchen filled with snack food where the kids can feel comfortable helping themselves. They know it is there for them."
It is OK to join in the fun
Doe says one of the surest ways to ensure success in creating a welcoming environment is to show the kids respect and enjoy them for who they are. "Engage in conversation with the kids," says Doe. "... Talk to that kid like they really do hold all the answers." Kids know when someone is really interested. They are so often used to being discounted that they will appreciate and respect any adult that appreciates and respects them.
"I don't have a swimming pool, video games, or anything fancy. In fact, we only recently got cable. But the kids love to hang out here," Doe says. "That's because I listen to them ... I talk to them. I embrace my children's friends with respect. Parents need to make their home a place were all kids are respected no matter how bizarre the clothing is or what their hair looks like."
Adeoye says it is OK for adults to join kids in play and have fun with them whether it is a baseball game or a video game. "Everyone has a good time and the kids see that the adult can be fun too," says Adeoye. But, he stresses, parents must ask permission to join and make sure not to become too controlling.
Maintaining family life
Finally, be careful not to allow your child and their friends to overtake the household. Maintaining family life should be a priority. Adeoye says that you should have designated times in which friends can come over. Last summer, my kids had friends ringing the doorbell from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. and some who wouldn't leave in between. I began to resent it, so I instituted a no-friends-before-10 a.m. rule and started sending kids home for a few hours mid-afternoon with the promise they could come back after my kids finished lunch and their chores.
And, if we are going to have a particularly busy day or if I just plain need a break, a note goes on the door. The letters, large enough to be seen from across the street, reads, "SORRY, BOYS CAN'T PLAY TODAY."
Jean Dunning is a mom of four who writes on health and parenting issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.