Imagine this: You’re visiting your neighbor, and during the 10 seconds it takes to add cream to your coffee, your toddler has knocked over your neighbor’s exotic-looking fruit bowl, shattering it into a million tiny pieces on the ground.
Or maybe you pick your 8-year-old up from a friend’s house and the other parent reports that your kid inadvertently sent the Wii remote sailing through the television set.
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So … do you owe your neighbor a new fruit bowl, or your son’s friend’s mom a new Wii remote and TV? How about money?
Etiquette expert and author Thomas P. Farley, a.k.a. “Mister Manners,” says these scenarios can be awkward on both sides, but by being thoughtful and gracious, you’ll not only navigate them like a pro, but also model appropriate behavior for your child.
Scenario #1: Your Kid Breaks Something Inexpensive
After picking your son up from a playdate, he sheepishly admits that he dropped a glass in the sink by accident.
What to Do: Hopefully your child already said he was sorry directly to his friend’s parent or caregiver, but whether he did at the moment or was too embarrassed, he—not you—should sit down and write a letter of apology to the family (assuming he’s old enough to write, obviously), says Farley.
Then, you should offer to pay. Even if it’s a small trinket, the proper thing is for you to call the other parent and offer to pay for or replace the item. Most likely the host will insist it’s not a big deal. If this happens, don’t accept the first rejection, recommends Farley, but if after the second or third time the other parent still insists, “Really, I hated that cup anyway,” then take her at face value. In this scenario, it may be more important to make the offer to replace the item than to actually do so, Farley adds.
If, however, the host takes you up on your offer, get her the money right away, and then figure out with your kid how he can pay you back with allowance money or by doing extra chores around the house to make up for it. You don’t have to go overboard here and make him work off every last cent, but even a few dollars of contribution or 15 minutes of sorting the recyclables will hopefully make him more aware next time.
Scenario #2: Your Child Ruins Something Pricey
Whether it’s tossing a ball through a sliding glass door, squishing a bowl of raspberries on the new white rug or, worst of all, breaking an irreplaceable family heirloom, it can be harder to cope when your child has accidentally broken something of real value.
What you should do: No matter what the object was, the first step is to apologize to the family and try to find out what happened. The key here is to do this without blaming the other parents in any way (even if you secretly wonder why your 6-year-old was allowed to enjoy her bowl of raspberries on the new white rug in the first place).
First, have your child send a handwritten note of apology, and when it comes to expensive damages, Farley suggests being much more insistent about reimbursement. If the other family flat-out refuses, try coming up with something your child can do as a way to show how sorry she is, like helping the family rake leaves in the yard, or if it’s your teen who caused the damage, maybe she can put her tech know-how or gardening expertise to good use to help the other family out.
“Doing a chore for the other family is not about shaming your child,” stresses Farley. Explain to your daughter that you know she didn’t mean to cause the damage, but that next time she needs to be more careful, and it’s appropriate to show her friend that she’s sorry. However, if you will be paying the host family back for the broken object, that, plus a sincere apology from your kid, is plenty.
What if you’re cash-strapped and don’t have $500 to pay for a new window? Our expert says that nine times out of ten, hosts graciously decline. Still, it’s a good idea to be prepared in the event they do hand you an itemized bill. If you don’t have the cash up-front, suggest a payment plan works for you, and then, “stick to the arrangement as agreed, paying off the debt even earlier, if possible, so that both sides can promptly put the awkward matter behind them,” says Farley.
Remember: Whether you have a grade schooler or teen, don’t swoop in and rescue him when something like this happens. He should always be involved in brainstorming a way to make things right, whether by repayment or a thoughtful overture.
Scenario #3: A Visitor Breaks Something in Your Home
If someone else’s kid damages your stuff, whether it’s a $10 frame or something more valuable, it’s important for you to be gracious. “These things happen, and if you are the family that puts up a huge stink when something is broken, what’s going to transpire when your child does the breaking?” says Farley.
What you should do: Farley says whether or not you ask for money to cover the loss should be decided on a case-by-case basis. “If you really need the money, and the Vanderbilts come over and break the TV, I would not hesitate [to take them up on the offer to replace it],” he said. However, if both parties are in a similar financial situation, and replacing the item (if that’s necessary) is not going to strap either party, you might just let it go, knowing that what comes around goes around.
Tell us–have you ever had to deal with parents who were angry when your kid broke something of theirs?