Ages 7 to 9: KINDNESS MATTERS
These kids are a little savvier about social interactions and are picking up more on other people's feelings—all good guest skills. However, they still need concrete reminders:
"Try your hardest not to make gross noises."
Kids love to burp the alphabet, fart on command, and, oh, so much more. However, what's funny at recess isn't always cool at a friend's home. Remind your child to tone it down: "It's rude to belch at the table, but if you do, say 'Excuse me.' "
"Don't be a snack hound."
Take it from me: Feeding kids with bottomless stomachs (like my youngest daughter) right before parties and playdates is futile. They still beg constantly for food. Most host moms are willing to give one snack, but pint-size guests who want to munch continuously can be annoying.
Bridget Melson, a mom and family therapist in Pleasanton, CA, tells her kids that they shouldn't take more than they're offered. "Then I say, 'If you follow the rule, I'll give you a surprise,' " she says. This assumes your child will fess up—but it never hurts to offer reminders in a positive way.
"If you can't think of anything to do, keep thinking."
Most host parents don't expect to be entertainment directors, and your child's friend may not want to choose every activity. Leonard has a great way to develop her kids' "creative thinking skills": If they utter the dreaded phrase "I'm bored!" they get a chore—from dusting the baseboards to reorganizing a toy shelf. "Now when they're at a friend's house and their host says, 'I'm bored, there's nothing to do,' I can guarantee my girls will think of something!" she says.
"Be ready to go when I come to pick you up."
It's probably happened to you: The other parent finally arrives for pickup, and the guest kid hides his shoes or runs upstairs. "I especially hate it when the other parent looks at me as if to say 'Can't they just play a little longer?' " says Chris Shaw, a mom of two boys in Wilmington, NC. Don't put other parents in this awkward situation: Consider rewarding your child with some video-game or TV time at home when he leaves a friend's house quickly, or take away a privilege when he opts for that last-minute game of hide-and-seek.
Ages 10 and up: MAKING YOU PROUD
Most parents expect more self-control and manners from older kids, says preteen and family psychologist Susan Bartell of Port Washington, NY. Practical reminders:
"Respect the rules, even ones different from ours."
Particularly at sleepovers, hosts appreciate it when your kid adheres to some sort of "bedtime," even if that doesn't mean actual sleeping (e.g., no loud video games or goofing around after midnight), and doesn't initiate no-no's like sneaking outside. And remember, says Bartell: "If your kid is wild at someone's house, the mom grapevine will know, and your child will stop getting invitations."
"Work it out."
When arguments occur—which they will—it's great if your kid can help figure out solutions. As with most skills, this one starts at home. "It may seem easiest to jump in and resolve conflicts between your own kids, but it's important that they figure out how to do so themselves. They'll really put these skills into practice away from home," says Smith.
"Turn down food politely."
Your child will score major guest points by saying just "No, thank you" if the mom offers a food he doesn't like.
By this age, kids who openly fuss about what they eat or make special requests are considered high-maintenance—by parents and tweens. Encourage politeness at your own dinner table first, suggests Seattle parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution. "When your child says, 'Yuck! I hate this green stuff,' remind her: 'What I'd like you to say is, 'I'm not a fan of spinach, so no, thank you.' "
"Say hi and bye—at least—to your friend's parents."
"Your tween will be perceived as a really nice kid if she makes an effort to thank her friend's parents for having her over, and looks adults in the eye," says Bartell. If you're not sure, you might also ask the other parents what your child should call them, because there's no hard-and-fast rule these days.
As I was finishing this article, my 7-year-old, Flora, came back from a neighbor's house whining that the babysitter—an adult with kids of her own—wouldn't let her leave until she helped clean up the toys she and her friend had scattered around.
To everyone's shock, I called and thanked her. I don't want my daughter to think it's okay to leave a mess behind. I want her to be the kind of person who thinks about others—and yes, I want her to leave her friends' homes with the parents (or the sitters) thinking, "Now, there's a nice kid."
If I could just get her to stop hounding her playmates' parents for Popsicles...and sandwiches...and chips....