03/20/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

Dear Family Whisperer: Help for the Culturally Challenged

Dear Family Whisperer,

When our friends with kids ask us to meet for a dinner at 8 p.m., I feel kind of reluctant to say we can't go out because our 4-year-old son needs his sleep and his routine. The problem is, children here (in Italy) go to bed later. They make up for lost sleep in school, where nap time is maintained until children are 5 or 6. I sometimes wonder if we would be better off going with the flow -- letting him stay up later, not taking away his afternoon nap -- because it would give us more opportunities for a social life... Dinner with other children in a restaurant with a playground would be a great experience for him, and it's a pity for him not to go. Sometimes we do, but the day after is a bit hit and miss. How can we find a compromise between maintaining a routine that fits our child's needs -- in my opinion, he cannot go to bed at 11 p.m. -- and, at the same time, enjoy social experiences as a family?
-- Culturally Challenged Mom

Dear Culturally Challenged Mom,

The social life you describe -- and what I've read about Italian parenting -- remind me of families I've interviewed in France, where children are part of the constellation, not its dominant stars. At grown-up gatherings, the kids behave. When they don't, most parents seem to take it in stride.

Perhaps what you're looking for is "balance," not compromise. This needn't be an either/or choice between sticking to your routine or having a social life. To be sure, a predictable daily routine is as essential to "familying" as it is to parenting. But it's also important to be flexible.

Family whispering is about tuning in and considering everyone's needs and vulnerabilities, not just your son's. He might not respond well to changes in his schedule or a later bedtime, but your mood, your reaction and expectations (and your partner's, if you have one) also affect his day-after mood.

If the outcome of a late night is "hit or miss," don't leave it to chance. Pay attention. Keep track of what happens on the "hit" days. Then, keep doing it. Instead of worrying about a "miss," try to shift to a more positive mind set. See these outings less as a disruptive occasion and more as a growth experience.

Families need to be with other families. A night out lets you enjoy adult interaction and allows your son to mix it up with kids his own age in a context outside of school. Instead of being an isolated unit, you're connected for those few hours to other adults and other kids. You get to see how they manage.

You always have a choice. There may be times to just say no -- for example, on a school night. If you've been traveling, or one of you has had a particularly stressful day, you might need time at home. You also might decide that going out for the evening could lift everyone's spirits.

When you accept an invitation, "rehearse" it. Recall successful outings ("Remember how much fun it was to be with the Romanos...."). Recast unsuccessful ones as learning experiences ("Next time, if Maria shoves you....")

Consider the contingencies. What happens if you find the restaurant too loud? What if your son gets tired or doesn't want to join the other children? Will you leave early? Offer him your lap?

Most important, prepare. Even though your son officially "gave up his nap," there's no reason he can't take a little snooze or at least have some quiet time before a big night out. Chances are, you should, too!

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