Two simple conversations to save a life on a playdate

February 03, 2015 by Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW

On a nearly daily basis I hear of a tragedy where a young person gets a hold of a gun and kills another child by accident. Just last week there were three reported deaths. It is heartbreaking and preventable.

Children are naturally curious, and they have vivid imaginations. Many kids pretend to shoot or use guns in playgrounds across the country. Accordingly, even when parents tell children firmly not to touch a family gun, often those rules are broken. One such story illustrates this point so well. Sarah Gentry grew up around guns and knew the rules. Never touch a gun without her father. And yet, she did.

When there is a gun in the home, it is 22 times more likely to be used in an accidental shooting or suicide attempt. And, the majority of people killed in those shootings are children and young adults. Being a child can be more dangerous than being a police officer when guns are present. In fact, in 2007, fewer police officers died in the line of duty than preschool children from guns. And most often these children are shot by another child.

Until recently, I never thought to ask a parent before a play date if there is a gun in the home. Partly because it wasn’t on the top of my mind. If I am honest with myself, I also might have been too embarrassed to bring it up. But given the statistics, extra caution is worth a little embarrassment.

Here are two tips to help you prevent a tragic accident takes your child away from you in an instant.

Have a frank conversation with the parent.

When the date is scheduled call the parent to ask about guns in the home. If that feels too awkward, email it. Let the parent know that you are uncomfortable around guns and that your child may be unfamiliar with the rules. If there is a gun in the home ask the parent about their safety precautions. Is the gun unloaded and securely locked? Is ammunition stored separately? Are both the gun and ammunition locked in a way that the children cannot find the key or know the code? If the parents are forthcoming and understand the inherent dangers of gun ownership around children, then you may feel more comfortable sending you child there for a play date. If, on the other hand, the parents are defensive or you don’t feel like you have been given truthful answers, well, then maybe hold back.

Have a frank conversation with your children.

It is a good idea to talk to your children about guns and gun safety. If your child comes across a gun he should know to: 1. Stop, 2. Never touch, 3. Leave the area, 4. Tell an adult. Once you have explained the safety tips, practice it. Then periodically, practice it whenever you see a toy gun. Additionally, explain that some real guns look just like toy guns so it is better to be extra careful.

Schools teach children to stop, drop and roll if they are engulfed in flames. However, gun safety is forgotten even though the risks are greater than the possibility of being caught on fire. As a parent this should be standard safety training whether or not your child wants a play date or not.

Having just moved to a new area, I recently had occasion to practice these two tips. I was nervous and worried that the other parent would be annoyed by my questions and wouldn’t want my son to play with her son. I pressed through my discomfort because it was too important. I was more than pleased with the outcome.

The mother completely understood my concerns and expressed similar concerns. There was a gun in the home but it was in a safe that was opened only by the parents’ fingerprints. The children didn’t even know there was a gun in the home. At the play date I was quietly brought to the bedroom to see the gun safe for myself.

Overall the experience was very positive. I gained confidence to continue to ask parents about guns. And I believe it was an important experience for the gun owner. It only takes one mistake or lapse in the usual protocols for an accident to happen. My questions helped the gun owner focus on her efforts to keep her family and their friends safe.

A version of this blog previously appeared at The Family Coach.

About the Author
Pearlman_CatherineDr. Catherine Pearlman is an assistant professor in the Brandman University School of Arts and Sciences. She has been working professionally with children and families for 17 years. During that span she has used her skills in myriad settings, including schools, camps, Boys and Girls Clubs, and in the homes of families. Her greatest satisfaction has come from helping hundreds of families learn to lead happier, more fulfilled lives. After seeing so many families — including her own –struggle with similar issues, Catherine started The Family Coach to help parents solve the every day problems that so many of us experience.

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