Growing up, my house was where everyone in the neighborhood learned their first swear words from my little brother, who conducted a profanity class from his highchair at age two. It was also where our friends saw their first R-rated movies and, incidentally, tried bagels for the first time. (I don’t think those last two things are related.) We were that house, the house where kids learned new, questionable vocabulary and watched movies they weren’t normally allowed to watch. Where my older brother was giving my younger brother toothpaste wedgies, where my mom talked about “being a thoughtful lover,” and where we played spin the bottle using Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader cards. Not sure what the rules were for that version of the game…
It was also the 80s, so maybe everyone’s house in those days was that house. Sidebar: My parents were excellent, loving parents.
Regardless, these days, most of that stuff wouldn’t fly and most parents would think twice about sending their kids to a house like ours. But there are all sorts of reasons parents are concerned about sending their kids to other people’s houses these days, whether it be unfettered screen time, lack of adult supervision, older siblings with vaping habits, and on and on. In every era, there are issues that are particularly worrisome and as caregivers, we are eager to protect our kids from early exposure to everything from porn to illegal substances.
On the other hand, we want our kids to learn all the important skills developed in the Wild West of afternoon hangs and late night sleepovers. Researchers have found that unsupervised play is critically important to kids’ social development. The lack of adult supervision actually allows kids to negotiate complex social dynamics on their own, honing all sorts of abilities that serve them well throughout adolescence and adulthood.
But that doesn’t mean we need to buy into an anything-goes attitude. Limits and expectations are still important even when we know our kids will see and experience things at other homes that they don’t at our homes. Here are some ways to strike that wobbly balance:
If it’s just a different approach to parenting. Let’s start with the easy one. Sometimes our kids are drawn to friends’ houses because they’re seductively different from our homes. There’s candy and donuts in the cupboard, no bedtime or curfew, and no expectation to clean up after themselves.
We all had friends like these growing up and visiting their houses was AWESOME. When our kids prefer to be elsewhere, it can make us feel like their own homes are ho-hum and totally lame. We shouldn’t second guess our commitment to nutrition-rich foods, good sleep hygiene, and family chores. Rather, we can embrace that our kid gets the excitement of experiencing novel things elsewhere while we still get to keep things in order. This is the perfect situation for my all-time favorite, non-judgmental adage: Different families, different rules.
If you’re concerned about screen time and screen content. This is one issue our parents didn’t have to deal with when we were kids but is a massive challenge these days. With families giving their kids access to devices at different ages, with different screen limits in place, varying parental controls, wide ranging levels of oversight, and various older kid influences in the home, there is a lot of ground to cover here.
First, you will be hard-pressed to control what your kid does at someone else’s house. You can remind them of the rules in your house and reiterate why you have those rules, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to follow those when they’re elsewhere.
Their buddy has Call of Duty? Assume they will play. Their friend is allowed to binge Netflix shows into the wee hours of the morning? Assume your kid will too. If your kid is heading to a house like that, however, assume that somehow, somewhere they will be exposed to porn too. The average age of exposure to pornography is 12 in this country, which means lots of kids will be exposed before 12. Make sure your kid knows they can come to you without your freaking out and tell you if they’ve seen something that makes them confused, scared, or curious.
If it’s a good friend, but their home is not a safe place. This is the trickiest one of all. Close friendships are critical to the business of growing up and yet, sometimes other homes don’t feel like safe places for us to send our kids to. And even more challenging, our kids may not be old enough for us to explain why we don’t deem these homes safe.
Perhaps there’s someone in the home with a substance abuse problem or the family keeps firearms in the home without appropriate safety measures in place. Possibly there are older siblings who have free range and you’re concerned about what your kid might witness or be offered. And sometimes there is simply a lot of fighting and volatility in the home that just makes it feel unsafe. In this case, the rule is clear: When you hang out with so-and-so it needs to happen at our house — they are always welcome here.
It’s human nature to be drawn to other people’s homes where there are exciting and subversive (to your rules) things going on. If we try to lock things down totally and completely, it will just drive our kids underground and cause them to sneak around. If we show a little flexibility about our rules when they go out, they will get a taste of the forbidden fruit while still allowing us to keep our limits intact.
Vanessa is the co-author of This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained (coming October 2023 from Penguin Random House), co-host of The Puberty Podcast, and President of Content at Order of Magnitude, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive.