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Playdate Peacekeeping

What to expect when your child's expecting company Add to ...

It may take a village to raise a child, but if you have the best jungle gym in the neighbourhood you may end up feeling like the only parent in the village, dealing with the scraped knees and sibling feuds of a bunch of kids who don't belong to you.

"I don't have a problem gently disciplining other people's kids," says Calgary's Leanne Shirtliffe, or Ironic Mom, as she's known on her blog. The family's playground equipment means there is often chaos in her yard.

"I did once get a little stern with two siblings who were spatty and in tears," Ms. Shirtliffe says.

A jungle-gym incident might involve some pushing, hair pulling, or maybe some Band-Aids. But it could be much worse. Sometimes, the visiting children are armed.

Clara Young, a Canadian living in France, once found her 11-year-old son, Ty, and his two friends Lucas and Pablo running around like bandits in her tiny Parisian apartment - with BB guns, "brandishing and aiming them at each other, James-Bond style," she says.

Not having much experience with children and guns, Ms. Young removed the pellets and figured they'd been disarmed. But Pablo still wound up with a pellet-sized welt on his neck. Either she'd missed one, or they'd found more ammo.

Ms. Young read them all the riot act and took away their guns, even though two of the culprits weren't her kids.

Judy Arnall, Calgary-based author of Discipline Without Distress, says this one's not in the parenting books: "Most advice focuses on parenting your children, not parenting other people's children."

Ms. Arnall says kids usually behave better at other people's houses, and from ages 1 and up can differentiate between the expectations of adults. "They know what to do at grandma's house, mom or dad's. They don't get confused."

Your child will have multiple stand-ins telling them what to do: teachers, aunts and uncles, babysitters, but also parents of their friends - who may come from a different family culture.

Experts say the key is consistency (the same thing goes for parenting between couples as in the homes of their friends) - stand a united front, communicate and decide on rules beforehand.

Because kids also know what they can get away with, says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Parenting Books and mother of four in Peterborough, Ont.

Ms. Douglas warns that children can be manipulative, with lines such as: "How come we're allowed to watch R-rated movies and eat candy all day at so-and-so's house?"

Ms. Douglas advises getting a second opinion. "Compare notes," she says.

By chance, while walking the dog, Ms. Douglas saw the parent in question and asked about the R-rated movies. "The mother had no idea." The woman gasped and said her kids aren't allowed into the R-rated movie cupboard.

More often than not, families do have different rules, so it's important to acknowledge to your children that it might be another story at a friend's house, Ms. Douglas advises.

"You don't want your kid pointing and gasping: 'You're not allowed to eat sugar? Why?' "

Sometimes, whoever the child belongs to, you may just have to pull the because-I-said-so card, Ms. Douglas says.

Ms. Shirtliffe is comfortable laying down the law; she has experience with moody teens as a Grade 8 teacher. She also has six-year-old twins. And she has a game plan. Ms. Shirtliffe and other neighbourhood parents talked "over a glass of wine," and decided that discipline was okay.

If there's been a fight, Ms. Shirtliffe always calls the children's parents, who will "want to hear it from a reliable source."

But sometimes the issue is more difficult than a playground scuffle.

When Ms. Young's daughter Zola, 9, had a friend sleep over, her friend refused to eat anything, "not pasta, not chicken, not breakfast the next day," Ms. Young says. She had no idea what to do, and so has hesitated to invite the friend back.

It might seem counterintuitive, says Ms. Douglas, but in this scenario she suggests lightening it up with jokes, such as: "You must not like our cooking." Or leave healthy treats out and tell the child she's welcome to help herself, even in the middle of the night.

"It could be that her brother or a friend made fun of her weight the morning before," Ms. Douglas suggests. Or it could be more serious.

Ms. Douglas's own daughter had an eating disorder, and she says that "turning it into an emotional question right away just makes it a battle of wills." During a sleepover, try to be laidback, but let the parents know if there are issues.

In all cases, common sense prevails. And when your child has friends over, expect a disruption in your schedule, Ms. Douglas says. "This is not the time to paint a room, or give yourself a manicure."

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