I have a rule for myself, I never turn away a child unless I absolutely have to.
Our neighborhood is full of children who come and go with seemingly minimal adult supervision. Many of these children wind up in my yard or my house, and I have gone out of my way to make sure they know they are always welcome. I buy animal crackers in bulk. I always have enough paint brushes and LEGOs to share. I make my home a safe and fun place to be, not just for my children but for their friends as well. I joke that I am the unofficial babysitter for the neighborhood and the truth is, I like it that way.
This can be stressful. At times it tries my patience and strains my budget. But I have reasons for this rule and, as long as I remind myself of those reasons, my desire to do the right thing outweighs my excuses not to.
When I was a child, my home life was not good. I had food and shelter and all the things that are legally required of parents to supply their children with, except that I didn’t have safety. My father was seen in our community as a good man, respectable. He did hard, honest work. He nutured a nice lawn. He kept to himself but he knew how to shoot the breeze when a situation called for it. No one would have ever suspected what I went through behind closed doors.
The same could be said of any child that crosses our path. We don’t know what their home life is like.
Even if they have wonderfully loving parents who are attentive to them, there may be other trouble that we are unaware of. If money is of concern food may be rationed, new toys and special outings may be a rarity. If parents are working long hours then adequate child care may be more difficult for them to find. Or perhaps someone in the family is battling illness, either mental or physical. They may have a family member with a disability. The child themselves could have a learning disorder. We don’t know what battles they are facing behind the scenes. We don’t know.
We can be a beacon of hope for those who face abuse or cruelty at home.
We can be a helping hand for parents who are struggling with too little money or too little time.
Our home can be a fun and safe place to come to when they need a fun and safe place to go. When whatever secret battles they are fighting become too much for them, they are welcome to take a break at our place. When they are stressed out, tired, hungry, hurt, or cold, our door is open.
Call me over protective but if the choice is between some unknown environment and my own home, I’d rather have my children where I can keep an eye on them. My children are some of the very few children in our neighborhood who aren’t allowed to enter other people’s homes or backyards without me.
I know my home. There is no alcohol in the fridge. The medications and kitchen knives are all locked up and out of reach. My children won’t find pornographic magazines or movies under my bed. Can I say the same for my neighbors? I don’t know.
But it is about more than just sheltering them from harm, it is also about helping them form meaningful bonds with their peers. I fill my home with all sorts of activities that encourage cooperative group play. The children work together as a team of chefs in the mud kitchen. They collaborate as a team of architects building LEGO sky-rises. They join in battle against evil forces as a team of super heroes with items from our dress-up bin.
While I do love playing catch and I can’t seem to be near chalk without grabbing a piece to draw with, I try to stay out of the children’s affairs and let them have the space to self-govern. I rarely force anyone to share and usually only act as a sounding board while they talk among themselves about the rules of their play. In the beginning, the children struggled with this. They frequently came to me asking -even demanding- that I tell their playmates to relinquish a toy or apologize for some perceived injustice. They were always shocked that, unlike the other adults in their life, I would only offer suggestions and refused to actually step in unless someone was physically hurting someone else on purpose. After a few weeks they stopped coming to me for the minor things and their communication improved, they learned how to talk through their issues with their friends.
Collaborating in their play and compromising through their disagreements, subtle changes took place. And I had the great pleasure of watching it all unfold right before my very eyes.
How do I know that this same emotional growth would have taken place in another environment, in someone else’s home? These conversations don’t happen when children are allowed to sit in front of the tv all day. This ability to self govern isn’t something that comes about from adults constantly ordering the children to “share” and “say sorry” and “play nice.” And it certainly doesn’t happen when children are isolated from their peers. They need time together, and lots of it, in order to learn these social skills.
By keeping an open-door policy with my children’s friends, I’m ensuring that my children have these opportunities to grow and develop into positive members of society. Having a front row seat to this growth is just the icing on the cake.
It should be common sense yet I know so many people who don’t realize this about children: they are worthwhile people.
They have interests and passions that drive them. They care when their friends are upset. They celebrate when their friends succeed in their goals.
So often I hear people say that they don’t like hanging out with their children. They’d rather send their children to a friend’s house, or get a sitter and go out without their children. I’ve even heard people admit to having multiple children only so they’d play with each other and leave the parents alone.
It baffles me how so many people see their children as being a distraction from the life they want to live. How they could see playtime with their children as a chore rather than a joy.
My open door policy isn’t just for the benefit of my children and my children’s friends. I genuinely enjoy the company of my children and their peers! I think they are great people! They know how to have fun, and their minds are like little scientists experimenting in their everyday activities. Figuring out how the world around them works.
My door is always open because they deserve it that way. They are worth the time, the effort, the money. And they deserve to know that they are worthwhile.
Of course, there is a caveat to my open door policy: you can only come over if your parents are ok with it. I ask every child who enters my home, “Do your parents know where you are?”
I’m not looking to step on anyone’s toes. Just because someone parents differently than I would doesn’t mean that their parenting methods are “wrong” nor that mine are “right.” I do not wish to under-mind anyone else’s parenting because I would not appreciate someone else under-minding my parenting.
Unless a child tells me that their parent has sexually abused them (in which case I’d be calling the authorities), I try to stay out of their family affairs and let the parents do what they are supposed to do: make the decisions and raise their child how they see fit.