Recently I was stuck without a babysitter when an important event came up. I reached out to friends on Facebook, and someone was generous enough to watch my kids at the last minute. But when I picked them up, I found out that they'd spent the entire time watching movies and playing video games.
I don't have a problem with a movie or video game here and there, but I've found that too much of either makes my kids a little nutty. And some of the movies they'd watched at my friend's house made me feel uncomfortable, too.
I left feeling conflicted. I was grateful to my friend for helping me out but sort of upset that she hadn't checked in with me about what kinds of movies were OK or how much time they could spend playing video games. Ultimately, I realized that my kids were fine (if a little antsy) and that by dropping them off at someone else's house -- whether it be for a play date, a sleepover, or a last-minute babysitting arrangement -- I had to give up a little control.
But I also realized that I needed to figure out how to talk to other parents about what I am and am not OK with when it comes to media. Without these conversations, the movies and games on play dates can easily spiral into age-inappropriate territory or far exceed the amount I'm comfortable with. While I initially thought these would be difficult topics to bring up -- and I was afraid of coming off as pushy or judgmental -- I've found that most parents are really open to having these discussions. After all, I'm not the only one who cares about this stuff.
Here are my tips for making that conversation go smoothly:
Be open. When a parent drops off their child at your house, let them know what your kids plan to do -- name any movies or video games they plan to play (and make sure the other parent knows you have age-appropriate options). This signals that you're open to talking about media use and that you think sharing information with each other is important.
Start the conversation. When you're arranging a play date for your kid at a friend's house, talk about planned activities. You can ask, "Do you think they'll watch a movie?" Or, "Is Jimmy into video games these days?" This will give you an idea of what to expect and whether you need to take the conversation further.
Give the heads up. If you have specific no-nos or even just some general preferences, you can broach the subject the same way you might deal with a food allergy. Something like: "Just wanted to let you know that Lilly is super sensitive to scary TV and movies. Please don't let her watch anything even remotely frightening." Blame yourself if necessary. Say: "I'm not ready for Darryl to get into YouTube yet."
Air major concerns. If any red flags come up in your initial chat ("Our kindergartner lovesGrand Theft Auto!"), decide whether you need to change plans, or let the other parent know very clearly what is and isn't OK for your kid. This isn't the time to be vague; just say, "I'm not comfortable with my kid playing or watching T- or M-rated games. Will they be able to play with something else instead?"
Clean up the mess. If your kid ends up seeing or playing something inappropriate while at a friend's house, mention it to the parent before any future plans are made. Unless it's an egregious situation, a casual conversation will probably do the trick: "Hey, just wanted to mention that Carla had some pretty bad dreams after she watched Harry Potter 3at your house last week. Can we stick with G-rated movies for now?" Most parents take their role as caregivers for your kid seriously and will be glad you spoke up.
Let it go. Surrender to the idea that the situation is temporary. Sure, you might have to deal with some aftermath if your kid sees something he's not prepared for, but he'll get over it, and one day when he's in middle school, you can laugh about it.