The Lonely Parent: Have a Conversation, Not a Liability Waiver

If you need any further evidence that parents cannot count on having the same standards as other members of their community when it comes to kids’ behavior, just look at the story in Sunday’s New York Times Style section. It turns out that some mothers and fathers hosting after-prom parties are requesting that parents sign a liability release before their children are allowed to attend.

It seems widely acknowledged these days that the prom itself is a rather tame affair. Maybe the dancing gets a little too wild and the dresses a little too skimpy. But too many school administrators know that if things get out of hand on school grounds, they are going to be held responsible for the consequences. When I was in high school, the prom was held one year on a cruise in Boston harbor. Every student who attended was required to ride the hour-long chartered bus to and from the prom in order, presumably, to limit what students were imbibing in the process.

For the most part, the dangerous and risqué activities seem restricted to after-prom. Which is absurd, when you think about it. It’s not some clueless assistant principal who is putting our kids at risk. It’s other parents. Take Adam Wergeles, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, who received one of these waivers to sign when his 17-year-old daughter wanted to attend an after prom party. There would be 90 kids attending at “a large rented private home in the Hollywood Hills and would be chaperoned by two adults.” Ninety kids, two adults. Now there’s a recipe for supervision.

But rather than shred the document, Mr. Wergeles decided to simply mark it up, you know, to make sure it was legally sound. He consulted with another lawyer about it too. His daughter, according to the reporter, was “embarrassed.” “It was frustrating,” Emma said. “For the past few years, everyone received a liability form for after-prom parties. I’m sure the other parents signed it and went on with their day.”

Yes, Dad. Everyone else is signing the waiver. Why do you have to make such a fuss? But the real question is what parent in their right mind lets their kids attend a party where the parents are so concerned about lawsuits that they would require a waiver in the first place? Admittedly I signed a waiver to let my kids go on bouncy castles. But I think this is a little different. The Times didn’t reveal the exact language but presumably if your daughter gets drunk and falls down a flight of stairs or gets drunk and is assaulted by someone else at the party, you can’t blame the hosts. (It would be tough to imagine any of these waivers actually holding up in court, but it seems like the hosts are getting their point across anyway.)

There is another side of this story that is also worth noting. It is not news to most people that the threat of lawsuits has changed our lives. It has changed the way doctors practice medicine, the way contractors work on our homes, even the way that teachers talk about certain subjects. But it has also changed the way we parent.

When things go wrong with our kids—on bouncy castles or at friend’s parties—the first response is to call a lawyer. We don’t trust the other adults in our kids’ lives to be looking out for their best interests. Indeed, sometimes they’re actually not. And sometimes the mishaps or tragedies that befall our children cannot be prevented.

But other times they can. In order to do so, though, parents would have to talk to each other a lot more about what their standards are for behavior. You’d have to be willing to be the unpopular parent—not just consulting other lawyers before you signed some ridiculous waiver form—but actually calling other families and finding out what the party plans will be. Are there going to be parents there (and we suggest a ratio of more than 45 to 1)? Will there be alcohol? How will they handle kids who are caught misbehaving?

None of this will improve your image in the eyes of your children. But one could imagine it would, as they say, get a conversation started.

There are some parents out there who are not influenced by what they perceive as the general zeitgeist when it comes to raising children. After my question last week about media consumption, I got a number of responses from parents who are probably stricter than their own parents were and certainly than their friends are. One mom told me that when her son has friends over they ask for a “device” to play on. When she replies that the family has nothing but Apple TV and phones with no games, the boys are shocked and dismayed. But then they go outside to play.

In other words, despite their initial surprise at being confronted with different standards, the kids will adjust. Parents, however, may take it more personally. They may see other parents’ rules as a kind of judgment about themselves. And a phone call to another parent about their standards may be seen as a confrontation.

So, here’s this week’s question: Have you ever called another parent to find out about the rules in their house? How did it go over? Send your responses to [email protected]

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