Scared Parents Are Avoiding Playdates For "Safety Concerns." What Gives?

Patrick A. Coleman

Child safety is often a parent’s primary concern and for good reason — there are plenty of justifiable “stranger dangers” out there. Some of those dangers spill over into the house of friends and parents of their kids’ friends who, say, don’t lock their gun cases, leave marijuana candies lying around, or may themselves be caught in the spiraling opioid crisis. To be clear, these are relatively fringe concerns that are quickly remedied with a parental spot check. But a new survey from the University of Michigan suggests these perceived dangers are making parents paranoid enough about playdates to skip them altogether. What’s worse, those parents are failing in their duty to ask the questions that would actually make playdates safer.

Researchers with the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health questioned 881 parents with at least one child between the ages of 4 to 9-years old. Of those polled 48-percent suggested they have refused a playdate because they did not feel comfortable leaving a child in the care of another parent. But, at the same time, only 1 in 4 parents said they have been asked questions about child safety or parenting practices prior to a playdate. 

Think about that for a second. That’s a mind-boggling disconnect. Clearly parents are concerned enough to keep kids from connecting with each other, but they are deeply reluctant to ask questions of other parents. And instead of taking the perhaps uncomfortable step of quizzing a parent, they’ll isolate their kid. 

Only 44 percent of the Mott Poll respondents suggested they have ever asked questions of other parents before a playdate. But that doesn’t mean they did not attempt due diligence. While a vast majority of respondents did suggest they would attempt to meet the other parents before a play date, 45 percent said they would ask neighbors about the parents. A full 44 percent said they would check on the other parents’ social feeds, while 30 percent checked sex offender registries and 21 percent quizzed school staff. 

But why not just ask the other parent? What so hard? It’s not like asking a stranger deeply uncomfortable questions about their household. After all, parents have a ton of stuff in common. Think of all the concerns we share. Think of all the daily hassles we all go through raising our kids. Think of the fact that each and every one of us wants our children to grow up to be happy healthy adults. In fact, the shared experiences of parenting should make it easier to ask questions and to reserve our judgment when we are asked questions. How could that be worse than looking someone up on a sex offender registry? 

The problem is that when parents do meet, important questions about child safety remain unasked. While many parents said they would like to know who was supervising their children, only 38 percent said they would ask about the presence and storage of fire weapons and only 24 percent would ask the same of medications. 

Parents fail to ask those questions in spite of the fact according to a 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics about 1300 children die from gunshot wounds every year with and an additional 5790 are treated for non-fatal wounds. Also, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in the last 18 years, child deaths from opioids increased 3-fold with nearly 9,000 deaths reported son 1999. 

What are parents really concerned about? Of particular concern for parents, according to the Mott Poll, are that children will be left unsupervised. But more than getting into medication or poisons, injury or unapproved foods, parents’ second major concern was exposure to profanity. A stupefying 35 percent worried that their child could be exposed to inappropriate language during a playdate. 

What the actual fuck? 

The bottom line is that kids need to play. They need to play outside their home with other kids. This is how they build new perspectives on the world; it’s how they begin to understand different people have different ways of living. Playdates help kids figure out how to regulate their emotions and get along with others. All of that is way more important than a kid hearing someone swear. That’s not going to do any lasting harm.

So we need to be brave as parents and ask the important questions, even if we feel that it will make us uncomfortable. Mott poll researchers suggest part of the problem may be that parents simply don’t know how to start harder conversations around medication and firearms, which feel deeply personal. “Parents may find it helpful to have a plan for pre-playdate conversation with the host parents,” authors of the Mott Poll Report offer. They note that parents may want to have a checklist of questions handy and make a plan for when exactly they will ask the appropriate child safety playdate questions. “Parents who are worried about offending the host parents may want to practice their explanation of why they are asking about safety concerns.”   

And if the parents you’re asking questions of respond with hostility, caginess, or suspicion, you’ve gleaned some important information. The angry and suspicious parent may not have a home in which you want your kid to play. But at least now you know for sure because you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Suddenly those questions have made your kid safer. Well done. 

In the end, having a conversation and asking questions is a small price to pay to make sure that kids can get the social benefits of playdates while parents have peace of mind. 

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