When Carolyn Miller was in primary school, her best friend Suzie lived about a 15-minute walk away. Often, the two girls would visit each other’s home after school to watch telly, play with their dogs and indulge in make-believe games involving dress-up clothes and a lot of make-up.
One day, Carolyn was visiting Suzie’s house when they realised the time was getting late. Eager to be home in time for dinner, Carolyn asked for a ride home. But it turned out that Suzie’s mother had had a few too many drinks and wasn’t in any condition to drive, so Suzie’s brother Jon offered to take her.
“I was eleven and Jon was only 13, but he often got behind the wheel when Suzie’s mum couldn’t drive,” recalled Carolyn, now 48 and a mum of three. “I said I’d walk, but Suzie and her brother made me feel like I was a right old scaredy cat. So I let Jon drive me home, then told my mum what happened. She was livid.”
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Teach Your Children Well
Carolyn’s story is not unique. While we want to allow our children the freedom to pick and choose their own friends and be able to play at their homes, we cannot always ensure that their friends’ houses are safe. It’s a fine line between being over-protective and allowing children their freedom, so how can we ensure that our children are not in any danger when visiting a friend’s home?
First of all, teach your children well. Create safety guidelines, which allow your kids to have a good time while keeping safe.
Even at a young age, your children should know about stranger danger, traffic safety, and appropriate adult supervision and behaviour. They should also feel free to tell you if anything made them feel uncomfortable while at a friend’s house – or with any adult – without fear of being reprimanded or punished.
First-Time Safety Rules
Follow these tips when your child visits a friend’s house for the first time. The rules will fluctuate, obviously, on the age of the child – and his or her own personality…
- Decide on whether you want to visit the friend’s home first. Some parents, especially those of younger children, prefer meeting the parents first, or even visiting the home. It’s up to you to decide on what comfort level makes you happy.
- Make sure an adult will be present – during the entire visit. If your child is very young, you might want to ask whether the children will be supervised at all times.
- Set ground rules. Tell your children that they are allowed to visit their friend’s house only, and are not allowed to go elsewhere unless gaining explicit permission from you first. This can mean anything from going to the corner shop to visiting another friend’s home.
- Get familiar with the neighbourhood first. If your child’s new friend lives in an area you feel is unsafe, you might not feel comfortable having them visit. Invite the new friend over instead.
What about Sleepovers?
If a child calls you from a sleepover at 2am and tells you that they want to come home, they might simply be homesick or have had a minor spat with another child. Sometimes, however, the reasons they want to leave might be more serious.
We all have taught or children not to let anyone touch their private parts. But there might be other reasons why they feel uncomfortable at a sleepover. Other kids might be partaking in activities that make them uncomfortable, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, watching R-rated films or looking at unsavoury sites on the Internet.
Your child might be uncomfortable telling you straight out on the phone what’s going on, so it’s up to you to exercise your own judgment about what’s really going on. If in doubt, pick up your child – and resist the urge to quiz them about what happened immediately. Your child might need some time to digest what happened before they feel comfortable unburdening all to you.
Play it Safe
Carolyn continued being allowed to visit Suzie’s home, but on two conditions. She was never allowed to get in a car with any member of Suzie’s family, and she was forbidden from ever staying for a sleepover.
“Suzie and I were best friends, and it wasn’t her fault that her mum was an alcoholic, which we eventually realised was the case. She was sweet but sad, and my mother reckoned that at my age it was okay to be there, as long as I was only there in the daytime and never in a car,” Carolyn recalls.
“It was a bit of a let-down as Suzie’s family also had a big boat and invited me away on weekends, which of course I wasn’t allowed to do. I spent a lot of time making up excuses to Suzie because I didn’t want to hurt her with the truth, but now I understand why my mother acted the way she did. In fact, looking back I think she was surprisingly lenient.”
Letting your child visit a friend’s house on their own is a minefield, but remember that it’s okay to say no unless you are entirely comfortable with the situation. Don’t forget – your child’s safety is, ultimately, more important than whether or not your children have a good time.