Asking Before They Play: Are Your Child’s Friends Vaccinated?
Jul 17, 2014

In the first part of this series, Ask Before They Play to Keep Chickenpox, Pertussis and Measles Away, Dr. Zibners explores why a parent might be concerned if their vaccinated child has unvaccinated playmates.  Today, she offers suggestions on how to pose the question to other parents. DrZibners

Part Two: Posing the Question

By Dr. Lara Zibners

As kids get older, they naturally start wanting to go play at other people’s homes. As parents, we should encourage this developing independence, shouldn’t we? Not to mention the few hours of freedom we can selfishly steal from the arrangement. Yet it’s a little scary, watching them walk into another house. Another environment. Another set of rules. How do you know it’s as safe as the one you’ve created in your own home?

The answer is that you can’t always be certain. The other parents might be more relaxed about some things, more uptight about others. I, for one, am fully aware that my “two ice cream bars each and that’s it, people!” is a bit liberal for many of our friends. Then again, the way I freak out, hysterically screeching when I see a latex balloons being brought into our home…perhaps others view that reaction as inappropriate. But from my standpoint, I’ve never cared for– let alone heard of– a child who was killed by an ice cream sandwich. The latex balloon? Right. Number one non-food related fatal choking hazard. The point is we all have our priorities when it comes to the safety of our kids.

Photo credit: M. Danys

Photo credit: M. Danys

As a parent, when you decide that it is a priority to limit your child’s contact with unvaccinated children, that’s absolutely within your right. Please know that you aren’t alone if you are nervous or worried about upsetting or offending another family by asking about vaccine status. But it’s important and simply has to be done.

But what do you actually do? How do you ask? Blurt it out? Casually drop a line into the conversation? Tell a hilarious story about the last time little Bobby went for his routine immunizations and watch the reaction? It can be awkward. Especially if you haven’t given it some thought.

But it’s something you really need to think about. It’s fine to decide in your mind that you don’t want unvaccinated children putting your own at risk. However, it’s another thing to put those feelings into words. As an example, the Ask campaign has done a great job of raising awareness about the dangers of unsecured guns in homes with children and encourages parents to inquire about the presence of firearms in the homes where their children play.  Why can’t vaccine status be a similar conversation we have with other parents?

As a pediatrician I have the luxury of being completely obvious. “Oh do you work?” they ask. “Yes, I’m an ER pediatrician by day but I do a lot of writing, especially pro-vaccination pieces.” That sort of makes my position on the matter clear, doesn’t it? To my relief, most parents I speak to respond positively, even asking if they can call or email me questions. It has taught me that a lot of parents who are hesitant to vaccinate shouldn’t be tossed into the same bucket with the extreme anti-vaccine groups. These parents are just uncertain. Knowing that I vaccinate my kids and feeling free to ask me questions about the flu shot or the autism non-issue makes them feel better. So if I think about it that way, even though I may be risking my kids’ friendship with another child, I might actually be increasing the number of vaccinated children at their school. Which in turn makes me feel a whole lot less hesitant about bringing the topic up in the first place.

Of course, if you don’t have an opening line as slickly planned as mine, you will need to create one that works for you. It’s important that as a parent you feel comfortable in the way in which you approach the conversation, and the decisions you make about protecting your child. Having an open and honest conversation with another parent is certainly more responsible than breaking into the school office and going through the files, right?

So here’s my advice. If you feel passionate about immunizations and don’t want your kids in homes that are unvaccinated, you have to ask.  Now if you are bold, go ahead and just blurt it out.

“Yo! Your kid got his shots?” (Obviously this won’t work for everyone.)

or

“I know you may not be comfortable asking, so just to let you know, my kids are fully vaccinated because I do everything possible to protect them from disease.  I sure hope yours are too.”

If you prefer to be more subtle you may consider bringing the topic up in a more casual conversation before you arrange a playdate.  By discussing vaccines indirectly you will not only get a feel for the other family’s approach to immunization, you might actually open a conversational door and find a way to dispel some myths and misunderstandings about vaccination.

Here are a few suggestions:

We’d love to have a play date sometime. Just let me check the calendar because my daughter is scheduled to get some immunizations soon and I wouldn’t want her to miss those!

We’re so excited to have you see the new baby! Of course I’m a Nervous Nelly until he can have his shots, so we’ve been asking everyone we come in contact with if they’re up to date on their immunizations. I’m sure you understand. We’d do anything to keep our baby healthy.

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the news, but there have been outbreaks of [insert vaccine preventable disease here] in our area. Do you know if your kids have been exposed or need boosters?

I have a friend/family member who is undergoing cancer treatment right now and is especially susceptible to illness.  I was wondering, are your kids vaccinated and up to date on their boosters? Exposing them to any possibility of disease could be devastating right now, and with everything else they’re battling, I promised to do what I could to help.

I come in contact with lots of children/elderly through my job/volunteer work, and I would feel terrible if I exposed them to any unnecessary illness. While this may sound strange, I feel it would be irresponsible of me not to ask.  Have you or your kids been sick recently and are you all up-to-date on your vaccines? You can never be too careful.  Especially when it comes to infectious diseases.

Typically, by posing the question in a conversational way the response you get will help you gauge the other person’s opinion of vaccines. Of course we all hope the responses will be “Yes! Absolutely! Our kids are vaccinated!” but obviously sometimes that won’t be the case.

What do you do then?

Check back next week for the final post in this series when I will address how you can respond when the answer might not be what you’re expecting.

In the meantime, please add your own suggestions on how to pose the question in the comments below.  Let us know what success or challenges you’ve had in asking other parents about the vaccination status of their kids. And ask others to do the same so that we can share our collective experiences here and generate a helpful resource for all parents who share our concerns.

Dr. Lara Zibners is board certified in both general pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine.  As the author of the award-winning book “If Your Kid Eats This Book, Everything Will Still Be Okay,” and a hilarious blog, Dr. Zibners has been an avid and very public supporter of vaccination.

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