Q. "Both my husband and I were brought up in middle/upper-class families. I'm from the North and have a B.A. My husband's family was military and he has had college training too.
"However, we don't make a whole lot of money. When we were looking for a home four years ago we wanted a detached house and were happy to find one within our price range, 40 miles from Washington. At that time our baby was a year old. Since we planned to move before she started school, we didn't check out the schools or the type of neighborhood. We are sorry now, as we're stuck here with children 5 and 3 1/2 and not enough equity in our house to sell it.
"I don't want to sound like a snob. I'm active in civic affairs and have a great respect for most people in our town, but the people in our neighborhood are from a different background and are careless about their homes and children. They don't seem to teach their children values or manners and they allow them to do what they please.
"Some kids come down to play occasionally who are 1 or 2 years older than my older child. She's glad to have friends to play with so I feel bad when I say they're too old and send them away. Even though I keep an eye on these children, one girl is an expert at messing up and is sneaky too, and they all use poor grammar. Although I don't approve of them, I still live with my conscience which says, 'That's not very nice of you!'
"My children do have one or two friends with caring parents, as well as friends from nursery school, but I'm scared to death my children will take on the characteristics of these wild neighborhood children when they go to school. My girls will be with them all day long. Won't their bad manners and attitudes wear off on mine? "
A. Somehow parents can't believe how important they are to their children. While it's true that your children learn from others, it will be your attitudes and manners and grammar that will influence them far more than neighborhood children, school, church, television or books.
Friends are extremely important between 6 and 12, for they help a child define her values. But it will be your advice and example -- and discipline -- that teach your children the most.
They will pick up some bad grammar (and some foul language, too) from their friends (whoever the are). When you object, they will learn to use one kind of grammar with you and a looser sort with their friends. They also will pick up some of their behavior, but this will be a passing phase, mostly because it won't be acceptable at home.
Even without your objections, a child learns by comparison. Your children won't like a child who is rough with their toys as much as another who takes care of them. And they won't enjoy a child who lives by different rules as much as one who acts more like they do.
A child chooses friends according to her own self-esteem: They reflect the image she has of herself.
If your children feel good about themselves, their schoolmates won't be a problem; those they like will have the same standards you have at home. Even if your children felt completely outnumbered they can, with encouragement, stay on the high road, although they would feel quite lonely and left out.
This is also true for neighborhood play. Your children will do fine with one or two buddies and an occasional visit from the wild ones. These visits shouldn't hurt your children, and indeed they may help them.
Children should be exposed to people from all walks of life so they can make choices with more assurance. They also need to share their values and habits with others who have less, so that those children can make some choices too. While your children aren't juvenile social workers, your conscience is telling you that you have a duty to others, and so do they.
This doesn't mean that you lower your standards when the neighborhood children visit. Instead, you make sure they know your rules and that they are the same for everyone.
That's why you don't tell the messy child that she is too old for your child, but that she must follow your rules in your house for a very simple reason: You're the boss. Whether she wants to visit enough to obey your rules is her decision, not yours, and she should know that too. And if she must be sent home anyway, your own children shouldn't be involved in the discussion. It's not their business and it would be poor manners to discipline another child in front of your own. Everyone should be treated with dignity, especially a child.
In privacy you tell your children that you don't enjoy any visitor who leaves a mess for you to tidy, or who does something sneaky, and that you couldn't permit it. A parent has to protect her children from any things, including bad influences.
If you want your children to have other friends, you're going to have to expand their horizons and yours, too, using the same techniques you would follow if you moved to a big city. It may mean joining a babysitting co-op in another neighborhood, if that's possible, or getting active in a church with many young children. You also should find out if those good people in your civic work have any pre-school children. Once you know enough people you can arrange for some of their children to play at your house several times during the week. You may have to drive into the town to fetch and return the children but it will be a small peace-of-mid price to pay.
Even if you couldn't change a thing about your life, your children should progress quite well. Children are much more resilient than we think, particularly when they have parents who care about them as much as you do.