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Dilemmas: A friend gave out to my son

DEAR VIRGINIA, I recently left my four-year-old son with a friend, who has a little boy of the same age. My son was excited, but on the way home he burst into tears. He said he'd spilt some juice on a carpet and my friend had sent him to the naughty step. We don't have the naughty step in our house; it's cruel and humiliating, and I was furious that my friend had upset my son over such a minor mistake. Should I say something to my friend? Yours sincerely, Georgie

Disciplining other people's children is always a minefield. And every civilised parent usually bites their tongue as rude little guests behave atrociously in their homes, getting away with things that their own children never would. I remember once having to pander to a boy who, whenever he came round, wanted his fish fingers peeled. After which, he would eat the crumbling outer layer, but refuse the fish inside.

But, of course, I went along with it. Not only had he not done anything wrong, but he was, albeit only three-foot high, a guest, and I would no more punish a small guest than a big one. We should all make concessions to people we've asked into our homes. After all, if we dislike them, we need never ask them again, but it is the height of bad manners openly to criticise or, worse, punish their behaviour.

I'm surprised at your friend's behaviour. Your son certainly didn't mean to spill his drink, and if your friend was so fussy about her carpet, why hadn't she insisted the children stay in the kitchen? As for the 'naughty step', I'm with you. I don't like it as a form of punishment, having been, as a child myself, "sent to my room" if I became irritating. Any child who endured this wretched isolation from family love as a punishment would think twice before inflicting it on their own children, I'm sure.

So what to do? Firstly, assure your son that he need never go to this woman's house again. Secondly, make clear your sympathy for his reaction: say you would have cried if you'd been sent to the naughty step as well. And as to whether to tell your friend? I don't see why not.

Explain that you don't use this punishment in your house, and that your son was wretchedly upset. Lay it on thick. If her reaction is one of remorse, I think you could safely tell your son that nothing like this would ever happen again at her house and let him decide if he wants to visit in future. But if she dismisses it as over-sensitive piffle, then I'm afraid you'll just have to cross her off your son's list, which doesn't mean her son can't come over to your house.

Even as adults, we feel bad and guilty enough over trivia. There's no need to engender the feeling in small children for no reason.

respect others' rules

I am sorry your friend upset you, but to make it a rift would be ridiculous. I leave my children with my friends (or vice versa) on the strict advice to both sides that they abide by the rules of the host family. This is the only reasonable way of having any control as the host parent. If they had reservations about my parenting methods, this is the time to declare them.

Personally, I do use 'time out' for my children. I don't think I would have used it in this case, but do you know the circumstances? Children have a remarkable way of painting themselves as the guilt-free party.

Perhaps your son is not ready to play at another's house without you watching his every move.

Had she smacked or screamed at your child, then righteous anger would be in order. But otherwise, you must learn to trust other parents to discipline as they see fit.

>Jenny, by email

treat her the same

Invite your friend over for a drinks party. Make sure your living room is crowded with people, all standing, awkwardly juggling large glasses of wine and plates of potentially messy food. If she is a particularly decorous eater and drinker, have someone jostle her a bit. As soon as she spills a drop of wine or the tiniest bit of food, send her to the naughty step.

>marie, by email

let him decide

Tell your son that spilling his juice was an accident: you are not cross. Explain that families are different -- some consider it naughty, so he must listen carefully to his friends' mothers when he goes over to play.

Let him decide if he wants to play there again. If he does, then plainly it wasn't so bad and that's the end of it. If not, then next time the question arises, you can refuse on his behalf. If the mother asks why, then explain.

She may say: "Oh Lord, did it upset him? I am sorry. They nearly drove me mad, running around. I told them to sit down with the juice. Can I try to be nice to him and get him to change his mind?"

Alternatively, he may have been so badly behaved (in her mind) that she never invites him again. People have different standards.

>susie, by email

open up a dialogue

It would be a shame for you and your friend to fall out over this. It also benefits your son to experience different parenting styles, so he can realise, before starting school, that he can't always behave as he does at home.

You feel the naughty step is not appropriate, while she clearly does. Presumably, she puts her son there and it would undermine her authority to have let your son off the hook while hers was punished.

Your best approach might be to say: "Sorry about the carpet; I'll make sure you have his sippy mug next time, as I hate to think of him on the naughty step." This might open up a dialogue between you both.

>karen, wicklow