Uncertainties abound when children are out of sight

Posted March 05, 2010, at 5:08 p.m.

When our kids are teenagers, we really worry about whom they hang out with, who’s driving and how good the driving is, and how much supervision they’re getting in their friends’ homes,” a friend said over lunch recently. “But think about it,” this mother of a kindergartner and a toddler continued, “when our kids are younger, we drop them off at people’s houses often knowing very little about how much supervision they’ll get. And we allow people to drive them here and there without knowing a thing about their driving skills.”

There was a moment of silence around the lunch table, at which five women ranging in age from 28 to 60 were gathered. Then everyone had something to say all at once. What was striking was how each of the women admitted to feeling thankful that their kids had not become, as one of them put it “some kind of tragic statistic.” That’s because each of them knew of a different “iffy” situation into which their children had unwittingly been placed.

Two of the women said they learned, after having allowed their children to play and sleep over at certain neighbors’ homes, that the parents had alcohol abuse problems. Not only had these parents hosted plenty of neighborhood children in their homes but they had driven children everywhere, too.

A third member of the lunch bunch said a teenager in a certain household turned out to have substance abuse problems. She worried that the teen had been an unpredictable influence on her young son’s visits to that household and she suspected that the teen had exposed her child to inappropriate materials on the Internet, too.

“Even if there are no big problems in a household,” another mother at the lunch table noted, “you just never know how safety-conscious the other parent is. For instance, I am a nut about making sure my kids don’t have access to the basement stairs. It has no railing and there’s a concrete floor at the bottom. How do I know if other parents think about hazards in their houses? You want to believe people are careful when you entrust your kids to them, but how can you really know?”

The last woman to speak up addressed a truly tricky situation. “I love and have great faith in one of my women friends. I know my kids are in good hands with her. But her husband is a speed demon on the road, and I’m afraid sometime he will be the one who picks up or drives my daughter home. It’s horribly awkward but I feel like this is an accident waiting to happen. If I don’t say no to his driving my daughter, I know I’ll never forgive myself if an accident happens, but I also feel really bad about facing my friend with this.”

All parents know they can’t possibly know everything about how their children are treated when they are out of sight. And these days — particularly for working moms and dads — it’s difficult to have the leisure to spend time with other parents in their households or as passengers in their cars, where you might observe more about their parenting styles and driving skills.

But, as the five women at the lunch table agreed, you just have to make time to get to know the parents of your kids’ friends. The fact is, you cannot have any idea of the hazards in someone’s house if you never spend time there yourself. You cannot know anything about another parent’s vigilance unless you are around enough to see how that person monitors things in the home. Without getting to know the whole family, you have no idea of the influence, good or bad, that might be wielded by an older child.

Finally, you need to know the people who are hosting and driving your kids well enough to be able to talk with them diplomatically but frankly if you discover a clear and present danger. When all is debated, said and done, your children’s safety has simply got to be paramount. Read this column next week for some ideas on how to talk with other parents about “accidents waiting to happen.”

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