Monday, February 27, 2012

Asking the "village" - background check vs. gut check

This blog emerged, in part, because I felt like I needed a place to be honest about all this parenting and general life stuff.  We've been told to avoid politics and religion as conversation starters in mixed company, but for me the list was much larger.  School choices, chore schedules, organic food, fast food, sleepovers, and even Christmas presents are some of the innocent topics over which I have imposed self-censorship in some way or another.  If I'm honest, will the other parent think I'm judging them?  If I'm honest, will they judge me? One of my hopes for this blog is that those conversations might happen honestly.   If we are all honest we might find some comfort in the simple reality that we are all struggling with choices, filled with regret and pride, and doing our very best to care for our loved ones.

Yesterday, I asked you all what questions were on your "parenting test".  What are the choices that pick at you?  One response came that I'm calling the background check vs. gut check dilemma.  Here it is:

"I just had a question in my mind today and thought 'I wish I could ask other parents about this.' so here it is: We just moved and our new neighbors kid invited our son over to play and we just let him go to their house for a few hours. All I know about them is what the parents do for a living, that they have a dog, and they brought us cookies the first day we moved in. Shouldn't I have had the parents over for dinner or done some more investigating before I let our son go over there? Without overreacting and looking paranoid, how do we keep our kids safe in a world where even trusted teachers and family members end up hurting children?"

Now one way we could approach this is to recall all of the CSI/Criminal Intent/ER/Law & Order/ episodes we've watched and definitively respond that the world is a dangerous place beyond measure.  Therefore, you are stupid beyond measure to ever leave your child with someone who hasn't been thoroughly background checked and drug screened, checked for gun ownership and parental screens on their cable, and had the home scoured for violent video games and pornography.  If your kids are older, you can add checking for proof of any adult presence whatsoever and the size of their liquor cabinet. 

What I think actually happens, is that we ruminate on all of the stuff above and then give in to reality (how busy or tired we are or how embarrassed we are to ask our neighbor if they own guns) and let our children do many things that still leave us feeling nervous.  We are always going to be a little nervous.  What is important is that we pay attention to our gut.  When the next door neighbors handed over the plate of cookies and talked to us for 2 minutes, how did we feel?  Were there any immediate red flags?  Are our kids excited about the play date or quiet and anxious?

For me, the problem was the safety of the home and specifically hand gun violence.  I live in a big city and it seemed like a possibility that weapons might be present and in the hands of very nice, yet defense-minded people.  It also felt really gross to ask the parents of my kid's friends if they had guns in their home as a conversation starter.  My sons were excited to go visit, but I would feel like my worrying about other people's feelings was putting my kids in danger.  I did let them go to visit new people who were very, very new to me.  I also said "no" at times.  After picking up my son at one friend's house I spotted the little discarded nub of a joint on their porch. I assumed that it was not left by a postal carrier but never confronted the family about it. The kid wasn't a close friend so we just planned for their time together to be at school events or public places after that.

Here's the thing, if you do the gut check and you let your kids leave your sight without the level of screening that you think is ideal, it's not a permanent, set in stone, for all time decision.  We can't keep our kids safe from all bad things or bad people, but we can listen to them and their experiences and make adjustments based on that.  You are still going to talk about what they did at Johnny's house and evaluate how they behave when they return home.  You can still thank the family that first extended the invite by having them over for coffee or dinner and serving up your own batch of cookies - maybe in the shape of handguns and peace signs, just to help get the conversation going.


  1. Thanks for the good advice to trust our gut! So often when a child gets hurt, people say "Well, so and so seemed a bit odd but no one ever said anything." People didn't listen to their gut when they should have.

    I did find out later that the neighbors don't allow video games with gun in them, so that's good. And our son had a great time over there. The other neighbor though lets 4 kids in the trampoline at a time and I have to tell her our son is only allowed in alone. We have a trampoline with a one kid at a time policy. It was almost impossible for us to get homeowners insurance due to the trampoline because the injuries kids get are so devastating. 90% of the accidents happen because there is more than one person in the trampoline, so this is one of the parenting decisions that I have to stay firm on.

    Your post helps me stay firm on this decision, thank you!

  2. And I listened to my daughter. If she was reluctant to play with another kid but couldn't explain why, I honored it. Another kid's mother didn't speak to me for fifteen years after I canceled a standing play date! Her loss.