Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Art of Hosting Children

We have a constant flood of children through our house, day and night.  They come over after school to work on school projects or just play, they eat meals with us, they come over on the weekends to hang out, and they stay overnight to enjoy late nights with our kids.  Sometimes they even go on trips and vacations with us.  Despite the chaos it brings to our home, we welcome our kid’s friends and acquaintances into our house with open arms.  Because our family values people over possessions, we’re constantly investing into our kids’ friends by hosting them for school projects, play dates, and parties.  By hosting, we’re able to reach out to new or lonely kids, provide positive adult and family role models, monitor our kids’ friendships, and influence both our kids and their friends during teachable moments.  We keep getting more visitors all the time, so our approach is attracting children to our home, despite our insistence that guests pitch in a help a little around the house.  Here are the techniques we’re using to intentionally make our home attractive to our kids’ friends.

Visitors are members of the family

When children visit our house, they are considered members of the family for the duration of the visit.  This means both that we love them as if they were our own, and also that we have the same expectations of them that we do of our own children. 
Children visiting our house get equal time in conversations and sharing toys and games.  When they enter, they are recognized and greeted the same as our children.  If they’re coming from school, they tell us how their day went. Pre-school children are expected to break things occasionally, and grade school children get tutoring when they need it. Teenage visitors are granted “refrigerator rights” to raid the refrigerator or pantry when they’re hungry.
We also expect visiting children to follow the house rules and carry the same responsibilities as our children.  After-school visitors sit down at the kitchen table and complete their homework before playing.  Dinner guests help set the table, cook, and clean up afterward.  Even if they’ve already eaten, guests sit at the table and talk with us while we have dinner. Overnight guests clean up the bedding in the morning.  When Mom or Dad arrives with a carload of groceries, everyone over 8 years old helps carry groceries into the kitchen.  If our family has planned yard work on a Saturday morning, guests pitch in before heading off to play video games.
Visiting guests are also expected to follow all the family rules.  Visitors must be respectful, without screaming or name calling. Homework must be completed before playing.  Telephone use is not allowed at the dinner table.  Kids who stay up all night at their own sleepovers are in bed at a reasonable hour at our house.  Guests staying over Saturday night attend church with us on Sunday mornings.  As hosting parents, we feel complete freedom to discipline visiting children.  Preschoolers get timeouts, grade-schoolers and teenagers are restricted from video games and cell phones, or get their evening cut off early. When guests accidentally break things, they help (in age appropriate ways) to repair the item.
You would think that sharing the chores and enforcing rules would drive guests away from our house, but the opposite is true.  Children enjoy being a member of a family with a purpose and established boundaries.  They observe the mechanics of how our family operates with great interest. They don’t mind contributing to a functional family, because they feel like they’re part of something important.  When scheduling visits, we’ll often tell the kid’s friends that they won’t want to come over too early on a Saturday, because we have work planned for that morning.  Most of the time, they will choose to come over early to help, even if it means shoveling and hauling materials in the yard, or cleaning the house, because they enjoy accomplishing a goal as a part of a family.  When we plan a social event for the kids, many of their friends come over early, because they enjoy cleaning and setting up the house to prepare for the party.

Hosting parties and other social events

Every time we throw a party, people tell us we’re crazy.  Our parties are usually large and very novel, but guests come out feeling special and loved, and asking when we’ll host again.  We let our kids get very creative with the themes and activities, and since we value people, we invite lots of guests.  We had 12 boys overnight once for a flour war in the front yard (battling with nylons filled with flour).  We pushed all of the furniture out of the family room one year, and had a dance for over 30 teenagers, including foreign exchange students (“we never have dance parties in Japan!”). Our pool parties typically run over 20 teenagers.  We had 12 pre-teen girls for a formal ball, including full princess garb.  When we host our annual Halloween parties, we have to split the group in two, sending half out to trick-or-treat the neighbors, because they won’t all fit in the house.  Here are a few of our tips for throwing a successful party:
Household rules still apply.  All of our household rules apply at parties: no alcohol, drugs, or inappropriate physical contact. Guests must respect each other.
It’s all about showing children love.  There are always a couple of kids who are socially awkward, and will need a little encouragement to get engaged.  We work hard to spot the kid who is getting left out, and get them engaged.  We rarely force them to do what everyone else is doing, but we want to make sure they are either relating to someone, or doing some kind of activity.
No child gets left behind.  Children come in all different personalities and interests, so you’ll need a range of activities to meet the range of kids.  No matter what the primary activity is, we always set out board games and other activities for the quiet kids.  When we’re clearly hosting a swim party, we’ll still get kids who show up without a swim suit, and will play games, make crafts, or play the piano, and have a great time.
Structured activities must be planned. We always plan more than enough formal, structured activities to fill the time. These might be party games, opening presents and eating cake, dancing, competitions and relays, or a host of other activities, but we always have a list of activities to launch in case the guests get too rowdy, or too many children are getting disengaged.
Our children own the success of the party.  They plan activities to keep everyone involved, and they look over the crowd to make sure everyone is engaged and feels loved. When someone is misbehaving, they deal with the problem, with parental backup where necessary.
There’s going to be some chaos.  Children at parties are loud and scattered, especially if you give them sugar.  You can set them down for a few minutes to focus on an activity, but most of the time you’ll be either herding them, or trying to stay out of the way.  You can’t be a control freak and still throw a great children’s party.
Things are going to get used up, worn out, and broken.  Social activities are hard on houses and furniture.  Things get worn down and broken.  You can’t always choose what gets sacrificed, so you have to put away anything fragile or valuable, and expect that each party will cost you some physical sacrifice.
One boy has come to our parties consistently for years, because he has a great 1 on 1 relationship with our son.  He doesn’t talk much with others at parties, and rarely participates in the organized activities.  Toward the end of the evening, he sits alone playing the piano, whether anyone is listening or not.  Then he goes home, and tells his parents how much he loves coming to our parties.  It’s not because he’s the life of the party, it’s because we love him for who he is, as if he were our son.  We understand that he’s an introvert and a musician, and we provide a forum where he can be himself, and also a member of the household.