Safe Playdates: 3 Strategies for Setting Media Ground Rules
Playdates are really important for young children. Why? Because play combined with early socialization is a natural way for kids develop essential life skills. As kids play, they learn to empathize, negotiate and compromise. Not to mention —playdates are just plain FUN! But many parents today feel anxious to set up playdates. And much of the worry has to do with kids’ access to screens.
One mom recently wrote:
“What can I do to ensure that our family standards are kept and that my child remains safe from inappropriate media content while attending a playdate?”
Even Dawn Hawkins, Sr. Vice President of the National Center on Child Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), told us that she struggles to know how to open up conversations about media standards with the parents of her kids’ friends and potential babysitters. (You’ll remember Dawn from our Mama Bear post). She says:
“I do this work every day, but am terrified about having those personal conversations with other parents."
In today’s post we’ve gathered great advice from parents just like you. Their experience will help you plan media safe playdates. Plus, we’ll go through 3 common scenarios and suggest ways to bring up the topic of media safety in your conversations without coming across as preachy or judgmental.
Recently, my son received a party invitation from one of his best friends at school. Only, this friend happens to live out of area so I hadn’t had a chance to get to know the parents very well. I was feeling very nervous.
Fortunately this friend’s mom (I’ll call her Leanne) was an excellent communicator. By sending me all the important bits of information she immediately diffused my apprehensions. Here’s what she did:
- Used a messenger app to connect the parents in one conversation
- Gave us exact details about what would take place at the party
- Included information about the snacks that would be served
- Gave us the title of the superhero movie her son wanted to watch. Then asked if we had any concerns with it.
- Finally she mentioned that photos of the kids would not be posted to social media without permission.
Wow! Her consideration of my feelings was phenomenal. When I thanked Leanne, she didn’t hesitate to explain why she believed it was common courtesy to let parents know exactly what kids will be doing when visiting your home. As you might guess, Leanne was coming at this from experience.
At age seven, one of her boys had been invited to a playdate, which she later found out degenerated into playing R-rated video games. She was livid! Determined not to let that happen again, she became proactive at setting the ground rules with other parents.
Your kids, your standards
The most important thing to remember is that you get to set the standards for your own kids. It’s time to set aside any fears or embarrassment you think you have about communicating those standards. We will show you how to go in firm, but not overbearing. Here are 3 strategies:
1. Ask for support and explain why
When you explain to a parent or babysitter why you have specific concerns, they will be more likely to respect your wishes.
I remember the day 5-year-old Colton came over to our house after school. The first thing his mom said to me was, “I noticed you have a trampoline. Do you mind that my son NEVER goes on it?” Ok, maybe it was the second thing she said but it caught me by surprise because my kids live on our trampoline and I love that it gets them outside.
She then followed up with, “My brother had a bad accident on one when he was young. If you don’t mind, it’s just a rule that we have in our family!” Of course I would oblige! She didn’t judge me for my choice to own a trampoline. She simply got me to understand why she didn’t want her son to play on it.
The same principle can be applied to screen time, movies, video games, etc. Just make sure to articulate why you have certain media standards. Express those reasons without passing judgement on your host. For example I might say, "Do you mind if during this playdate the kids don’t have access to any devices? it’s really important to me that my children have time to socialize away from video games and TV."
2. Do your own detective work
Kristen spoke to Kari, a mom of 4 young children, and asked what she does to set up safe playdates for her kids.
Kari's first preference is to have friends and neighbors play at her house where she has more control. However, she realizes that isn’t always going to be possible, so her next line of defense is to do some subtle detective work.
No, she doesn’t go online and stalk parents on Facebook or hire PI’s. She simply initiates conversations about online safety and then gauges the response. Here’s how it usually goes:
- Whenever she’s meeting a new mom or dad at a playgroup or during a playdate at the park, she brings up a recent experience or news story highlighting the dangers of inappropriate online content and how easy it is for kids to be exposed to it.
- Then she listens to their responses. If they have a “no big deal” attitude about pornography and their kids’ access to it, she files that away. Most likely, her kids won’t be allowed to go to that home for playdates.
- If the parent shows genuine concern about online safety, she asks them what they are doing to keep their kids safe. (Then she tells them about the Good Pictures Bad Pictures books.)
This mom feels so much more comfortable allowing her kids to go to homes where she knows the children have been taught how to reject pornography from a young age.
3. Prepare and practice how you will respond
What if you don’t have time to do a full background check? Sometimes invitations happen spontaneously. Not to worry, there is still much you can do in the moment to ensure you only accept safe playdates for your children. For every invitation you receive, make certain to express your family media standards very clearly. Your standards will be respected as you consider carefully your response to these 3 different scenarios:
Extending the invitation
Lead by example. Imagine yourself on the receiving end of an invitation. Assume the other parent is just as anxious as you. Remember how Leanne calmed my worried mind about the party?
Always let other parents know that you have a rough agenda of activities planned. For example, “We were wondering if Henry would like to come over to play this Saturday? The boys would love to play with Legos and Hot wheels together. If the weather’s good I’d like to walk over to Maplewood park with them. What do you think? Do you have any concerns?”
If your plans include any screen time, detail exactly what games or movies the kids can choose from. Or you could mention how important playtime without screen time is to you.
Receiving the invitation
Never feel obligated to say yes. Instead start a conversation.
“A play date sounds great, what exactly do you have in mind?” If this question stumps your host (and it might) use this as your opportunity to explain yourself.
“With so many concerns these days about the amount of time kids spend interacting with media I wondered if this playdate would include any screen time?” If it does, find out exactly what kind of games, movies or devices are accessible to the kids.
Be upfront and honest. When it comes to your child's safety, your best defense is a good offense. Take the time to explain from the start that you are very strict about media and what you allow your kids watch. It’s not about passing judgement of other’s choices; it’s about informing others of your concerns.
This is way better than having that awkward conversation after you find out your 7-year-old spent the afternoon playing a first-person-shooter game without your knowledge.
Make your decision based on the answers you receive. If you have any hesitation, then suggest an alternative plan like meeting up at an indoor play zone for a couple hours.
The sleepover —just say NO!
On occasion your child may receive a birthday invitation that includes a sleepover. Sometimes from families you barely know. (Mind-boggling!) The best way to handle this kind of situation is know your answer ahead of time. And stick to it every time. “Thank you for the invite, my child will be happy to celebrate with you until such-and-such a time. I look forward to saying hello to you at the party.”
It’s recommended that you and your child come up with a code word they can use to get out of any situation that makes them feel scared, embarrassed or uncomfortable.
Best friends respect your values
Remember, it’s always acceptable to stay your ground for the sake of your child's safety. Every parent can respect that. In the process you will find other parents who share your values. Who knows? The conversations you have today could be the start of a lifelong friendship.
Do you know that Leanne sent me periodic updates from the party? She even told me when the kids had decided to go outside and have a popcorn fight. Did I think she was crazy? Not at all! I thought she was a conscientious parent who was willing to look out for my kid. And guess what? I’m texting her right now to see when we can set up the next playdate!
Important! In this post we've focused on media experiences. We understand that you may have other concerns related to your child’s safety while away from your care. As an additional resource please read, Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse–How to Protect Your Child. With the right information we CAN protect our children.