The Great Parenting Network
The many hands (and hearts) that help our kids along
I can trace my parenting network ideals back to my mother’s tiny hometown in Greece, where I would spend summers constantly roaming the cobblestone streets with some 40 cousins.
They served as my tour guides, and also as spies, since any rule-breaking was promptly reported to the powers that be (our aunts, uncles, and parents). The system worked to keep us all safe, though with so many players it could get completely nutty at times.
Apart from such a large extended family in close proximity, how can you cultivate a caring network that will help nurture your child? Where do you begin?
For my family in the U.S., it started in preschool. My daughter, now a teenager, continues to hang with kids she met in the YMCA preschool. Through the years I have also come to rely on their parents for support and wisdom.
Getting to know the families of your child’s learning compadres is not only easy, it’s critical to honing a network of watchful eyes to help your child along the way, no matter what the age or hobbies.
Begin at School
Much can be achieved by spending time at the school.
“Volunteering in the classroom means I not only know my children’s classmates, I know many of their parents,” said Cindy Kay (not her real name) of Sacramento, California. “Sometimes, the most important information is knowing who you don’t want to list as a parent who can pick up your kids in an emergency.”
Whatever new interests your child develops as she grows — sports, scouts, or sewing — the parents of the other kids involved can be your best resource when it comes to coordinating activities, sharing in carpools, hosting gatherings, or even filling you in on the day’s homework assignments if your child has missed school. And since your kids share an activity, you have a solid common ground to build a friendship and mutual trust.
Many parents believe the larger their network, the better.
“The more the merrier, absolutely,” said one mom from Bethesda, Maryland. “We have neighbors, school, afterschool activities, and synagogue.”
Look Out Your Window
Neighbors are indeed a great resource for the parent network. I remember well the day a neighbor down the street insisted that I put her name on all those emergency forms the school made me fill out the first week of classes.
“I’m right next door, and I work from home,” she said. “I’m always happy to help.”
I barely knew her at the time, but she’s now among my closest friends and her house is a backstop for my kids after school.
Helping Connect the Dots
The parent network really comes into play as kids get older. It sounds like a no-brainer, but when children start expressing their independence via last-minute requests to head to a friend’s house after school, you’d be surprised at how many parents don’t think to ask for a last name or phone number. The teen years can be a time when boundaries get pushed, and kids can find themselves in surprising situations simply because they didn’t connect the dots. Checking up on their whereabouts becomes a good idea.
“It’s not that I don’t believe the kids are where they say they are, but they still don’t think about things like how they will get from point A to point B,” said the Bethesda mom. “Parents need to help them think through logistics, so they are not stranded somewhere.”
Of course, when you’re trying to gather information on kids’ destinations, sometimes they won’t want you to get in touch with other parents, or even ask for their contact information.
“You’re embarrassing me, Mom,” my 13-year-old, Helena, is fond of saying. “Why do you have to talk to everybody?”
Because it’s my job to make sure you stay safe, I explain.
Trust But Verify
You should never be afraid to talk to other parents. When a local couple’s two daughters were in high school in Bethesda, they spent weekend evenings on the phone touching base with other parents to make sure the kids were where they said they would be.
“We believed there could never be too much parental communication,” the mom said.
Then there was the night that a neighbor of the couple’s spied some boys hiding in the bushes beside their house, and rang their doorbell to alert them to the testosterone ambush waiting just outside their door.
“The boys got busted,” reports the amused and still-appreciative dad.
Networking Yields Friendships
Don’t discount the role these network parents can play to your own well-being, too.
“If not for my personal network of parents, I would have no social life,” said the Sacramento mom. “How fortunate that I treasure so many parent friendships born out of long hours of volunteering and supporting school, church, athletics, and band activities.”
One of the moms from Helena’s preschool group regularly reminds my daughter that she can call on her any time, day or night, if she needs help, or a ride, and is worried about calling me or her dad. The generosity of this statement surprised me, and when I thanked her for it she offered up a really simple — and beautiful — response.
“We all need to help them grow up,” she said.