Our Children’s Friends

“Dime con quién andas

Y te diré quién eres”

-Old Spanish proverb

From my first day as a father, I worried about my children’s friends as much as I worried about their health. Numerous times I tried to do a ten-second evaluation on my friends’ children as soon as I met them, to assess whether they would be a good influence on my kids. If they cleared my initial screening, I figured out numerous ways to arrange a seemingly fortuitous meeting between them. Most of these efforts met with dismal failure.

Our son provided few challenges. From day one, we opened our home to all his acquaintances. Our lower level was large, and unlike many basements, was bright and led to the backyard. There was a bedroom and a shower. We housed and fed someone else’s kids, ten at a time, hundreds of times. We got to know everyone. My wife, who is much more fun than I am, became surrogate mother to all. These kids still love her.

Our daughters provided different challenges. The oldest was the “perfect” child from birth. Always did what she was told; made the “right” decisions. Her friends were carbon copies of her. When they came over for sleepovers, they read poetry, and listened to Brahms, and talked about how to save the world. All of them have done well.

Daughter #2 was the Calvin Klein kind. Very pretty; extremely fashion-conscious from an early age. When we took her to the mall she refused to go through Sears when we had to access the parking lot. Lord forbid that she would be seen there.

Her friends were cookie-cutter images of her. Cute; sweet; kind. Not terribly interested in ancient history or molecular biology, but they behaved well, and they liked to come to our home. Again, all of them have done well with their lives.

Daughter #3 was a challenge. The kids that she brought home had purple hair, or shaved heads. They had pounds of metal hanging from their lips, ears, noses, tongues, and God knows where else. They wore ragged clothes; some were unusually fond of glitter.

I took her aside on numerous occasions.

Who are these people?

It was always the same story. One or both parents missing, and I mean missing. The remaining parent was seldom at home. Many times, there was a steadily rotating set of significant others staying at their homes.

I do not like these kids.

“They are my friends.”

They look like they are going to get in trouble. When they do, you will be with them. I do not like them.

“You always told me to stick up for the little guy. These kids need a friend.”

I decided to stop trying to persuade her. The friends could come over, only when one of us was around. She would not be allowed to go to their homes for sleepovers. To my surprise, she agreed to my rules.

Things went remarkably well. I got to know several of the nonconforming children. There was not a bad bone in any of them. They just needed someone to listen to them and treat them as if they were important. Our home became a haven for many of them. I got used to seeing lots of spiked orange hair and metal rings around our dining room table.

One day I got home ready to greet the usual crowd. Instead of new piercings, I saw a new face. She could not have been more than sixteen, but she looked much older. She was well dressed. Her hair was “normal.” And she was strikingly beautiful.

I did a double-take. My face must have turned away from the table, and I must have immediately looked again, because she noticed. She winked at me.

I called my daughter into my bedroom.

Who is that girl?

Her name is ___. Her mother is a nurse; she has been divorced three times. Her mother’s new boyfriend moved in with them. She does not get along with him. She hates her home.

This was in keeping with my daughter’s pattern of collecting strays, but this one was different.

I do not like her.

“You have not even talked to her!”

Listen to me. She is way, way ahead of you. No matter how fast you run, you will never catch up to her. She is not good for you.

“That is so unfair! I thought that you would like her because she looks normal. Besides, she loves hockey, like you do. She even knows two of the Blues hockey players!”

She knows two professional athletes? At sixteen? Now for sure I do not like her.

“That is horrible! I like her! She is introducing me to some boys. You always said…”

OK; OK. I will give her a chance. We will take her to a hockey game. I will talk to her; I will make up my mind after the game.

Hockey night came soon enough. My daughter’s friend showed up in plenty of time. She wore a Blues jersey. Not the one that you can buy at any discount store. This was one of the game-worn expensive ones. It was autographed by two of the Blues. I thought of how stupid it was for an athlete who makes millions a year to “befriend” a minor. Then it occurred to me that many of them turn pro at eighteen, and that they have been overwhelmed with praise and adoration much earlier in their lives. Still, one would think that someone should have warned them…

I asked the girls to go in the garage. As our new friend stepped down from the utility room into the garage, she gave me a pat in the butt.

A new experience, for sure. I spent the game having nightmares while awake. This child could accuse me of anything, and my career was over. Nobody who did not know me would believe my side of the issue. I could not tell my daughter what had happened. The enormity of this transgression was too much for a young mind to evaluate.

Once we drove her friend home, my daughter asked me what I thought.

I do not like her. I do not want you to see her anymore. For sure, she cannot ever come to our house, for any reason.

A storm of abuse came my way. I held my ground, and I pretended not to be offended by what she said.

A few weeks later my daughter’s mom left town for a weekend (we shared custody of her). My daughter was left in charge of the home. She called her friend, that she had not stopped seeing. Her friend called a member of the high school football team. He called a few others, who made a few more calls. They showed up at my ex-wife’s home with a keg of beer.

They pushed my daughter to the side. They had a party. They refused to leave when she pleaded with them. I have heard several versions of what happened, some of which involve a visit from the local police. In any case, extensive damage was done to the home and furnishings. My daughter had to pay for the repairs out of her babysitting money.

Once the commotion and recriminations were over, my daughter approached me.

“You were right, dad. She is not my friend.”

A happy ending if there ever was one.

I do not know how the other lost souls that she befriended turned out. I think that she lost track, meaning that she lost interest in strays. She has exchanged people for dogs: it seems to me that she cannot turn any canine down. A good problem to have.

There are nights that I stay up trying to figure out what to do about all these wasted lives. One of my friends who works as a school nurse in a middle-class district told me that half of the children attending her school live with neither parent. Drugs; crime; abandonment. In a middle-class neighborhood.

How can anyone start a conversation about our country’s future if we do not start with what is happening to our families and our children? Does it matter what political party we belong to? If we do not devote all our resources to our children, we will not have a chance.

In Spanish, the refrain above means “Tell me who you run around with, and I will tell you who you are.” Cervantes said something similar in Don Quijote, so it is safe to assume that we knew the value of good friends and childhood education four hundred years ago. Shame that we have not assimilated the lesson yet.

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