There's a certain animated program on public television that Janea Weber doesn't let her 2-year-old daughter, Abby, watch. Educational merits of the program aside, Janea feels the characters act a little too sarcastic and unkind toward each other -- behaviors she doesn't want her daughter imitating. Naturally, she was surprised when, out of the blue, Abby started chatting about the lead character in that very program as if he were her best buddy.
"She's not going to be scarred for life by seeing the show, but I'd just prefer that she not watch it," says Janea, who discovered that Abby had seen the show at a friend's house. "Should I just tell my friend that?" she wonders. Raising the issue feels awkward, Janea says. "It's hard when it's a friend, and you have different rules," she says. "It's like your values clash."
When it comes to child rearing, parents hold widely varying beliefs about what's appropriate. Yet when one parent's rules conflict with another's, it can ignite unspoken doubts or fears of judgment. It's all too easy for even the most confident mom to ask herself, "Does she think I'm a bad parent?" or "Am I too uptight?" The situation feels especially uncomfortable when it happens with close friends and relatives.
"I've encountered this personally many times," says Melanie Killen, professor of human development and associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland. Like any other mom, Killen has a few specialized rules of her own. For example, she doesn't allow her 4-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to drink soda pop, even at birthday parties. "Sometimes I've had to put up with my kids crying and yelling about it, and it's embarrassing," Killen says. "I don't want to be the 'evil mom,' but this is what I feel is best for my child."
And like any belief where a child's upbringing is concerned, parents should never feel that they have to apologize for their rules or scuttle them to fit in, says child psychologist Lawrence Shapiro, author of The Secret Language of Children (Sourcebooks, 2003). But that can lead to sticky situations. Here are some ways to deal with them.
Ask, don't assume. Parents may be caught off guard when they assume another parent would act as they do. Who would think of letting a 6-year-old watch a PG-13 movie? Or allow a 12-year-old to play a violent video game? Of course, some parents do.
The best way to prevent surprises is to talk to the other parent beforehand about how the children will spend their time. If your child is the guest, tell the hosting parent your child's limits in a friendly, matter-of-fact way, Killen says. ("I don't mind if Gracie has a cookie, but I only let her have one because if she eats too many she tends to get sick.") And the need for communication with other parents only increases as your kids get older. For example, if you have a teen who is invited to a party, always call the host parents for the details. Specifically ask if they will be there the entire time and about their attitudes toward kids drinking alcohol and using drugs. "Don't be shy about telling other parents what your expectations, values, and rules are," Shapiro says.
Watch what they watch. Media exposure -- what parents allow their kids to see, play, and hear -- is a prime area for conflicting rules. Typically, it boils down to the kind of language being used, or the level of violent or sexual content displayed. Sometimes, parents don't like the message given when a show portrays parents as bumblers at the mercy of their precocious children.
Whatever concerns a parent has about television content, vigilance is necessary if you're going to enforce your rules. Even if you're enjoying a visit at someone else's house, be conscious of what the kids are watching. If it's something you don't want the kids to see, simply say, "If you don't mind, I'm going to have them turn off the show," and then do it.
If you want to avoid possible confrontations, next time have your child bring a few videos that you've approved. But also make a point of asking the other parent if these titles are acceptable to her. It's not only courteous, but also sends a message that you're respectful of her opinions about what's appropriate for the kids to watch.
Sometimes, a more drastic stance may be necessary. If you're in a group setting where the overwhelming majority wants to watch something you don't approve of, it's neither practical nor polite to expect everyone else to bend to your wishes. But that shouldn't stop you from leaving, if you feel you must. Melody Campbell-Goeken of San Antonio, Texas, has left gatherings early because the entertainment wasn't appropriate for her 7-year-old son, Philip. "This sends a clear message to Philip that it's okay to do what is right," she says.
Explain yourself to your kids. If you have to leave a party because the entertainment goes against the rules you've set, you should always talk about it once you're home, using the situation as a teaching moment to emphasize your rules and their purpose. Here, honesty works best. Simply explain that families have different rules, Killen says, and some parents let their kids do things that you disagree with.
Know when to bend. If the entire family converges at Grandma's house, and your kids want to stay up just as late and eat just as much candy as their cousins, that may be okay. "There are exceptions," says Shapiro. When her daughter attends a sleepover, Killen is willing to fudge on bedtime, but not on drinking soda.
However, don't feel pressured to go along with everybody else. If losing a couple hours of sleep and overdoing sugar means a major meltdown for your kids, hold firm. "You can tell your child, 'These are our rules because I know you, and this is what's best for you,'" Shapiro says. Talk to your relatives about issues that concern you. "Put it in the third person," Killen says. "It's not, 'You're a bad parent!' It's 'Look, here's what we have found works well for our child.'" In the end, though, "you might have to agree to differ," she says. "I think it's important to be able to stick to your principles."
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, July 2004.