Their friendship began in the usual way. Kyra, my 10-year-old daughter, asked if her schoolmate, Tara (not her real name) could come over after school. I consider myself fortunate to be home with my children, my schedule filled with their activities. The next afternoon was free, so Kyra called to make arrangements for her new friend to visit.
In my experience, play dates are usually preceded by an easy-going conversation where mothers get acquainted, assuring us of our children's safety as they embark on new adventures.
My first phone call with Tara's mom didn't follow these familiar, unspoken rules. "Can you bring Tara home afterward? My car is broken and my boyfriend can't pick her up," she asked brusquely.
Of course I was willing to accommodate her. Her abruptness made me uneasy, but since I didn't know her, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She was probably busy, and I may have caught her at a bad time.
The next day Tara came over and the girls indulged their imaginations. They danced, cavorting in great, gaudy dress-up creations. Racing outdoors between rain showers, they climbed trees and when the rain returned they retreated indoors to draw wild colorful images.
Five o'clock rolled around quickly for their agenda, but the time had come to pile in the car to take Tara home. I parked at the corner and we walked Tara to her door. The row of scruffy duplexes made me apprehensive.
Plastic toys, faded and beaten up, were strewn across the walkway. I cringed at their abandoned and abused look. Tara knocked on her door.
Her mother answered and stood in the small dark entry, her T-shirt tight and unflattering with its wolf image distorted and faded.
Cigarette smoke poured down the narrow hallway leading into the living room. A reedy man in his 40s ignored Tara's arrival as he sat hunched over and stared at a television screen.
Bouncing up and down, Tara asked, "Mama, Mama - can Jill spend the night this weekend?" My daughter joined her friend and the two of them pinged like pistons.
"Looks like you girls are best buddies. Yeah, maybe Jill can come over," Tara's mom said, grinning as she glanced at me for a response.
Protectively, I placed my hands on Kyra's shoulders and back-pedaled, "Well, I'm not sure. We'll have to check the calendar."
As I drove home, I was tense with worry as I pondered the situation.
Was I hesitating because I truly did not think Kyra would be safe to spend the night at her friend's house? Or was I harboring discrimination against Tara's economic and family situation? My inner debate continued as I wrestled with my own dark fears and prejudices. Do my good experiences of family with my husband, who loves and actively participates in our children's lives, bias me against those less fortunate?
Will others react similarly and what impact will this have on Tara as she becomes increasingly aware of being shunned?
Conscious of my conflict, I settled for an uneasy compromise. I explained to Kyra, "Honey, sometimes I have to follow my intuition. Tara's mom's boyfriend made me feel real uncomfortable.
"There's something creepy about him and I feel you might not be safe there." I added that Tara was welcome to play at our house.
Although I was feeling right about my motive, as I listened to my words, I wondered what effect my decision would have on Kyra. Would it teach her to have sound, cautious judgment? Or was I teaching her to judge people negatively because they are different from us?
* Laura Bowers Foreman is a Seattle-area mother of two. Her essay "The Lessons of Lilies" was published in the anthology "My Mother's Tattoo" (Pod Publishing, 1996).