Let’s talk about immunity

I've gotten some questions about the knife fight I referred to in the letter. I wrote about it briefly when it happened here. It was on the L train in Manhattan while I was taking my then-4-year-old to preschool. I didn't realize it was a knife fight until it was in progress two feet from us, so I grabbed my son, shouted "Tiene cuchillo!" at the other mom with a kid on the train, and she and I got our kids off the train. It was short but terrifying.

Also, if you're a new reader and haven't heard this before: When I lived in NYC we used to be at the playground every day, and at some playgrounds there would occasionally be hostile-seeming men (always men) staring at the kids and getting too close and sometimes taking pictures of the kids. A few times I took pictures of them with my phone, just in case. Last year, one of my friends from the playground was walking with her kids on the street and a man touched her daughter. So she took his picture with her phone. She told me she didn't hesitate, because we'd all talked about it and rehearsed it so many years ago when the kids were little. She took the photo to the police, and it turned out that the guy was a convicted child rapist out on parole. Her photo and evidence and testimony at the trial last week sent him back to jail where he can't rape any other little kids.

I am generally not afraid of the world, and I feel like it's a good and wonderful place, but I've learned to trust my instincts about people who are up to no good, and follow those instincts. Reading the book Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker is an excellent place to start assessing danger and trusting your instincts.

But let's talk about immunity. I didn't think the section about immunity in the letter to my kids was anything new, as I always knew I had immunity from my parents if I needed to call and get help. But it seems to have struck a nerve with people, both as something they wish they'd had, and as something they'd had. I got an email from a 21-year-old woman who grew up in New York and always knew she had immunity. She told me she'd gone through a very rebellious phase as a teen, and then told me this story (and let me quote this part of her email):

"But I went through a fairly heavy rebellious phase as a teenager, picked
up a drug habit, and running away from home to get high became a norm
for me. On one of these occaisions I was away from home for a 10 day
stretch, on the 10th night a group of classmates tried to gang-rape me. I
was extremely lucky and was able to run away. But because of the love
my mother had shown me – I knew that night wasn't my fault. I knew I
could go home. And I knew I would be safe."

She knew she could go home. I burst into tears reading that for so many reasons. Thinking about how scared she must ahve been, how worried her mother must have been, how lucky she was, how sad I am that the classmates tried to rape her and no one intervened, all of it.

But the takeaway for me is that she knew she could go home. That's what I want my boys to know, that they can ALWAYS call home and come home, and they can bring anyone who needs to be safe home here where there's always a hug and someone to listen to your story.

Tell me about a time you needed immunity, or got immunity, or gave immunity, please.

34 thoughts on “Let’s talk about immunity”

  1. I always had explicit immunity with my parents in HS. I never used it. I told them I was DDing my friends at beer parties, they trusted me not to drink, I didn’t, I drove my drunk friends around. But almost every time I said I was going out, my parents reiterated to me that if I DID end up drinking, or if I felt weird, or if something strange was going down, or ANYTHING, to call them and they’d pick me up, no questions asked. I know my sister used the immunity a few times, she was a little more into the drinking scene than I was, and my parents followed through. I don’t think there’s any possible reason NOT to do this. The only thing I can even imagine is that people might take it as condoning behavior. But immunity doesn’t mean not talking about it. It means you aren’t going to get grounded/screamed at/etc, and it means your parents are happy because they know your safety is more important than perfect behavior.

  2. I was not raised with immunity. My parents were the very Old Testament, “The stranger within my gates” kind of parents. So if you weren’t upholding THEIR values, then if you were of age, you got kicked out of the house. My brother decided to live somewhere else when he started his summer acting career and also later, when he started drinking.I had that “invitation” of moving out whenever I considered doming or being something that my parents didn’t approve of.
    My dad recently told my aunt that she should kick her daughter out of the house for getting a lip ring. My aunt, thankfully, said, “Eff you.”
    My parents did a lot of things right when we were little kids, but really lost us in the teenage years – trying to maintain control over our behavior in the same way as they had as kids (kind of with the fear and intimidation tactics exponentiated, I guess).
    This is the biggest thing I’m doing differently in my home. Making my kids HEARTS most important. Relationships over what really boil down to my personal preferences.

  3. I think this is hard. I was always given immunity in that I could always call for a ride or help, no immediate questions. But I would still face consequences for my actions if they were dangerous or deceitful. For instance, if I called home drunk they would come get me, but I would still be grounded for drinking underage. I never used this, but I watched my brother use it several times. I learned to 1) not drink unless I had a safe way to get home (or was close enough to walk home, or was spending the night at a friends house) and 2) it was just easier to be the DD and not drink and then not get punished. I DID drink in HS, I just did so when I had a plan for how the night was to end. I do think I could have made that call, but watching my brother made me realize that you had to plan beyond the first drink so I did.However, I had a few friends in HS who had and used immunity often. They got drunk EVERY weekend then called for a ride and were never punished for drinking. So the cycle continued through college and of the handful of kids who did this in HS I know 2 who had drunk driving convictions in college or after when they didn’t have anyone to call and pick them up. The immunity didn’t change their dangerous behavior, just kept them “safe” while they were still living at home. I also have a friend who’s family has been totally ripped apart by a (now adult) child who started drinking in HS, moved on to Rx abuse in college then to heroin. Single-parent (father), upper-middle class home, private school, very smart, great athlete, etc. Was ALWAYS given the option to come home no matter what (as was his sister). It went on that way for about 8 years before the dad and the sister just had to walk away and stop answering the middle of the night calls.
    I guess what I’m saying is that I think the issue is much more complicated than “yes, my kids always have immunity” and “no, my kids will always face punishment for their actions”. When does immunity stop being good and start enabling and or rewarding chronic bad decisions?

  4. I remember one night, very soon after I was given the keys to my dad’s old car as my own, that my dad gave me the immunity talk. He told me that it didn’t matter where I was, who I was with, or what I was doing, but that if I needed help, I should always feel free to call him no matter what. He said that he knew kids were going to drink and do things that weren’t safe, and that he hoped I didn’t get into trouble, but that if I ever did, I should never fear calling home for any reason.I never needed immunity. But I always knew it was there.

  5. I may be misinterpreting your immunity, but I would argue that I would present the case of refuge rather than immunity. If a family member got into an horrific situation, they could call and would be gathered up and brought home. But no immunity. Consequences might be delayed while care was given, but consequences would not be removed. What if the hypothetical son had just raped an unconscious woman?Actually in some cases, even refuge would have to wait while care was given to or obtained for others. If an hypothetical daughter had stabbed her hypothetical boyfriend, emergency help would need to be applied to/gotten for him, and damn the “take her home and no questions asked.”
    Doesn’t mean I don’t love my kids. Doesn’t mean they can’t turn to me, any time. But beyond toddlerhood, you can’t always kiss it and make the pain go away.

  6. Enu – I do not want to speak for Moxie, but I interpret the immunity as being for the bystander/victim who is somewhere they are not supposed to be, not for the aggressor.

  7. When I was a teenager (back in the olden days) I was told that if I was ever ‘in trouble’ that I could always call and they would come get me no matter what. Same rules applied to my daughter. Never had to use it, but it was there.Of course, we did not have cell phones when I was a kid, so I’m not quite sure how I would have called.

  8. I had immunity when I was in HS or home from college in the summer. I never used it. It was of the “no immediate consequences, we’ll get you home safely, but the next day we’ll need to have a serious discussion about this” variety. All 5 of us had this same immunity and I don’t think any used it. The only sibling I think drank in HS always planned ahead (as described above) for how her evening would end. The only time she got in trouble was when she hosted a party at my parents house while they were gone one weekend and did a bad job of cleaning up afterward (and had a neighbor tattle on her).So, for me at least, the immunity doesn’t mean no consequences. It means that I will make sure that if you’re in a bad/dangerous situation, I will help you get out of it, but that you should expect that we’ll be talking about how you got into that situation and how you could/should avoid it in the future. With possible restrictions/consequences based on the discussion of how it happened.

  9. I did not have immunity. I always feared calling home more than dealing with the consequences of my decision making. Because of this, I got stuck in situations that I didn’t want to be in, with no way out. I was irrevocably changed because of lack of immunity and fear.I’ve given the immunity talk to daughters of former boyfriends and to the girl who babysat my children for 8 years.
    I will lay it out clean for my children that they can always call me. We will not talk about it right away, but then next day we will spend much time together sorting through it all. I will also tell my nieces and nephew. No matter what, they can call me.

  10. I grew up with immunity, though I don’t recall ever using it. My parents took it one step further: they enlisted the help of my uncle. My mother’s brother iss about 10 years younger than her. When I was in high school, he was married and just starting a family. He also had a reputation in the family as being a bit wild in his teens and 20’s. He was the only family in town. So my mother got him to agree that if we were ever in a position where we needed a ride or were in trouble and were worried about my parents finding out, we could always call my uncle. He would come get us any time of the night and bring us home. And it was between my uncle and us – she didn’t expect him to tell her. Or so she said. I didn’t use my uncle’s help but my sister did. Often. And I think she was a lot more confortable calling the uncle than calling our parents.

  11. Similar to Erika, I had an aunt much younger than my parents who took me aside as a teenager and told me that I could always come to her if I didn’t feel I could go to my parents. I’ve always been grateful for her offer.

  12. I’m another one who grew up with immunity I never had to use. For me, I felt trusted so I didn’t break the trust. I know not all personalities work this way but I for certain intend to offer the same to my kids.

  13. When I was starting high school, a family friend about 15 years older than I made the offer that if I were at a party where people were drinking and didn’t have a safe way to get home, I could call her at any time and she’d help me. It was specifically about not getting into a car with a drunk driver, but I’m sure that if I’d been in some other situation it would have worked the same way. We weren’t close; in fact I’m not sure that I saw her more than once or twice during HS after that. And that didn’t end up being my teenage life at all; I never went to parties and I was strictly a just-say-no kind of girl. I never had to use her number. I’m not sure why she made the offer, but I was deeply grateful to know — at a time when my parents and I did not have a good relationship — that someone cared about my wellbeing. I’ve always wanted to make that offer to someone else.

  14. I’m with those (above) interested in a clearer definition of what is meant by immunity, or refuge, and its potential implications. @Kathy_B I think it is perfectly possible for the “bystander/victim who is somewhere they are not supposed to be” to shade over into “the aggressor” (or perpetrator of harm), a teen who gets drunk, drives drunk, and hurts someone, for example, or who initiates sexual contact with someone unable to consent (i.e. envision two drunken teenagers…). (As an extreme but real example of such a case, the other of two apartment buildings in the complex my stepdaughter lived in in college burned to the ground, killing 5 people, because a young woman angry at her boyfriend came over to his place (in that building) and, finding him not at home, threw a lit match on an old couch on his porch. Obviously that was a criminal offense and indeed, the perpetrator is now behind bars for life without parole. However lousy her judgment, her actions were pretty mundane.).As to Moxie’s question, among my mother’s best attributes when I was a teen/young adult (and I’m sure even today) was the blasee welcome she exhibited when we showed up with acquaintances, unannounced and unexplained. Thus, when I dragged a friend’s friend home one night and had her sleep over when she was too drunk to go home safely (not just to drive home, but also to be at home given her parents’ expected reaction), my mother cheerfully greeted her in the morning as if she were a long-missed dear friend of mine, not exactly expected (for she hadn’t been) but her visit very much a delightful surprise. Questions came later (to me, in private) but were entirely absent from the morning we spent together, recovering from the night before and then getting her safely home.

  15. … oh, but to add one quick thought, I do wish I had been taught how to call a cab before I was dispatched to college. That one can leave somewhere and get home safely even if there isn’t anyone to call for a free ride would have been useful to know — not because I was drinking and driving (though potentially for that reason, too) but because I at times found myself in places I realized I did not want to be and had no way to leave other than persuading others who were there with me to leave also, something that was not always feasible.

  16. I had immunity in high school, of the “we’ll pick you up any time, and the questions can wait, but tomorrow we’ll need to talk about it” variety. I did NOT use it. I think that I was more scared of my parents losing trust in me than of any consequences.The culture of my high school was out of control. I was tame by comparison, but still a little wild by any objective standard (drinking, lying, sneaking out, having sex, occasional drugs). I am not sure what my parents could have done to mitigate that. On the other hand, I think that I would have called if I had ever really been in trouble. As it was, I just learned how to plan to get myself home safely, or to stay at a friend’s house within walking distance.

  17. I was always told that no matter what, I could call, and no matter what, my parents would come. There might be consequences later (though my parents generally knew that as a people pleaser, I would beat myself up enough for us all, and rarely had to punish me), but there would be ZERO questions when the phone call came other than “where are you and are you safe to stay there right now?” I never used this, but knowing it was there let me know my parents would always have my back.My parents also extended this to my friends, many of whom used it after we graduated high school. My mom didn’t say that she would keep secrets from other parents, but she told my friends that if they needed someone to come and get them, the same rules would apply to them as to me–“where are you, and are you safe?”.
    And, several of my parents friends did the same thing for me–they said if I ever needed someone, and I didn’t (for some reason) feel ok asking my mom or stepdad, they’d be there.
    Having such a network of support and care made me feel very much like *I* was important, not just the rules. I still feel that way.

  18. This is an interesting question. I was raised in a way where (a)I am certain I would have had “immunity” if I needed it (e.g. a ride home and a stern talk the next day) and also (b)I never needed it.My (custodial) stepson, however, is someone who has needed immunity (sometimes real bad) and has not always been sure that he has had it. After the first experience (age 13ish), I made sure to talk to him about being able to call for a ride home no matter what and if he didn’t have his phone or it was dead that he could ask to borrow the phone at a store or whatever. I’ve also talked to him about “filing a flight plan” so that we can figure out when we should start worrying about him. He still isn’t doing that very much at all, but at least he’s starting to get home pretty regularly at a decent hour.
    We are at the part that others have mentioned – finding the balance between being a safe harbor in emergencies and being enablers. Helping him stand on his own feet and helping him make good decisions. Not regretting our choices and words 5 or 10 years from now. Hopefully it works out for all of us.

  19. I did have “call and we will come get you” immunity in high school, though there would certainly have been a serious discussion the next day. I never used it though–too much of a “good kid” to get in that kind of trouble.On a lighter note, a couple of years ago I met my husband and son at a restaurant after I got off of work. I made the unfortunate decision to have a 2nd margarita, forgetting that even though my husband was there I had to drive home too. We left my car, hubs put me to bed, and then called his dad to say “Remember when you said you’d pick me up anywhere, no questions asked? Well, I need you to drive me to get my wife’s car.”

  20. We also had immunity, with the same ‘this does not mean no serious conversations’ tone, though it was never actually made explicit to me. I’m child six of seven, so it was more like ‘just what we did’. I am certain one of my older sibs used it on occasion, but I never did. I probably should have once, even though I was only about five small-town blocks from home, I’d had WAAAAAY too much to drink and even walking home was probably not a safe plan, since the sidewalk had this strange tendency to bulge upward under my feet like I was constantly walking over the crest of a steep hill. However, way too drunk to think anything of it other than ‘well, that’s interesting!’. Oy. I think that was the last time I drank more than 1 or 2 at a party.Along with that assumption was the rule that we had to inform Mom of when we would be home, and match that time. If we missed the mark, the next time she got to set the time instead of us. So I could say ‘I’ll be back at 1:30 AM’ and she would mark it down on the fridge, and I’d scrape in at 1:15. I never missed that mark, because like others above, I didn’t want the disappointment or the loss of trust.

  21. I had immunity or something like it, but never used it. I think maybe my sister did, I don’t know for certain.What I want my kids to know is that they can always count on me to love them and stand by them, even as they face up to the consequences of their actions. So if they do something bad, I will still love them and I will help them figure out how to deal with the consequences, and how to try to make it right. That was what I felt from my parents (still do, really).
    But I will also work to instill them with enough strength of character and a strong enough moral compass not to ever have that resolve seriously tested.
    Of course, there are no guarantees, and even “good” people sometimes make terrible decisions. And my kids are still really little, so we’re just laying the groundwork for this. I reserve the right to look back and laugh at my naive self in 5 years or so.

  22. @Laura Lou haha, I love that!@Hedra that is a great rule about the time … hopefully I will remember it when my son is a teenager so I can decide if we want to use it (technologies being what they are now, or will be then, I don’t know I’d use it exactly “as is,” but good to keep in mind as a concept).

  23. My sister and I didn’t have immunity when we were teenagers. After seeing my sister come home and get into big trouble for being drunk, I became very good at hiding that I had been drinking.Now I find it astonishing that my parents didn’t take that opportunity to create a culture of immunity. We still don’t have the kind of relationship where I go to them for any kind of emotional support, although I suppose that I could go to them if I needed financial support. I’ve made it my business not to need help from them. It’s sort of sad, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to feel as if I could talk to them.

  24. @Anne, same here. To talk to my parents about anything personal would be very very strange.Did not grow up with immunity, but also did not have many rules. I could walk in drunk at 2 am on a school night and my parents would not be pleased, but they never laid down any rules. For anyone to rape me was not on their radar, not a bit. If I called them drunk or high and asked them to come get me because I was in a house full of horrible, angry boys, they would most likely come, but not ask any questions, and not be terribly concerned.
    I still feel like their home is my home. And I know it would be automatic for them to take my whole family in, even for no reason at all. They are good people, perhaps not great parents. I am positive that I won’t be like my parents, but I know I’ll need guidance and advice big time for the teen years.

  25. I asked for immunity in high school (in the “If I am not safe and need help, and I understand there will be consequences for my actions” why) and was strongly refused, with the reply, “You shouldn’t need that help.” I.e., we refuse to acknowledge that you would be so ill-beahved to be in that situation in the first place. To this day, it makes me sad, because as others have posted earlier, I was then many times in dangerous situations. My parents were (and are)wonderful, but on that one thing, they really failed. I wasn’t the easiest teenager, and I can acknowledge that. But on the immunity issue… I will do it differently than they did, let’s just say that.

  26. I have always had immunity from my parents but it was always coupled with values and expectations being made explicit and I knew there would be consequences for dangerous/”bad” behaviour. I distinctly remember, as a young teenager, listing “bad” things I could do and asking my mum if she would still love me. My list started off pretty low key then I revved it up to what would you do if I murdered someone? I’ll never forget her reply to that which was along the lines of “If you did something like that then I would agree that you should be in jail and I wouldn’t ever excuse what you did but I would always still love you and come and visit you”. I will be giving my daughter the same message.

  27. I definitely had a version of immunity growing up. My Mom impressed upon me from an early age that she would always be there should things become hinky and it was a repeated conversation that began before I was of the age (namely as a teenager) when I might want to employ it. I was able to go into my teens feeling pretty safe about things. I never had to use it (even though I did drink and got up to shenanigans now and then) but it was a good thing because I went out knowing I had an out of some kind. She also made it clear that any of my friends who might need it, could use her for immunity. (her big thing was making sure that no one was driving drunk, or if they were in a scary situation, she would be there to help them out.) The deal was that she would come get us, let us go to sleep, and then in the morning there might be a talk about what went on. She was very much about trust/respect/responsibility.I do think of one time when I came home slightly under the influence and she was polite and let me go to sleep. Of course the next morning she did turn on that vacuum on early and let my youngest siblings jump on me a bit to wake me up. (fair is fair.) She then said, “well that was a bit foolish wasn’t it.”
    My Mom also worked quite a bit with teenagers, so she let it be known to a lot of kids that she was happy to show up, pick up anyone, and get them home safely. (because she did know kids who didn’t have that at home, and she knew what it was to not feel like one couldn’t trust their parents for their safety)
    I think only one of my siblings had to make the call (and in that case it was from jail.) and she came and got that sibling. No questions asked. (other than, “are you okay?”) Of course the following day there was some serious talk.

  28. I had this growing up, although I never used it. Even now, at 35, I know that if I needed to, I could call my folks at any hour of the day or night and they’d be there to help me or anyone else who needed it. They weren’t (and still aren’t) perfect, but this is one thing they nailed.I’ll be doing the same for my daughter (and her friends). Using immunity is not a ‘get out of jail free’ (ha – hopefully it doesn’t come to that) card, but it is a ‘get out of this scary/dangerous situation and sort it out later’ card.

  29. In theory, I had immunity. But not in reality.I was a teenager in the 80s, largely before cell phones, and when MADD and other groups were getting up a head of steam.
    A young woman in my HS died in a drunk-driving accident — the driver of the other car had been drinking, and the accident critically injured my schoolmate’s SO and killed her.
    So, after that, there was huge pressure on parents / guardians / carers / faculty and staff in our school community to provide immunity.
    So, technically, I had immunity.
    But I didn’t, really.
    For immunity, you need to know the person picking you up is safe to drive, ie, that they haven’t been drinking or taking drugs, either. I couldn’t count on that.
    For immunity, you need to know the adults who are responsible for you won’t abuse you using as an excuse the reason that prompted your call. I couldn’t count on that.
    Even for kids and teens who really, truly can trust their parents or guardians, there’s still this issue of not wanting to disappoint them. This is one of those places where having another trusted adult who isn’t that person to go to can make such a huge difference. In both safety and mental health.
    I’ve been very privileged to be able to act as that “other adult” a few times over the last few decades, and I’m really glad. And honored by the trust.

  30. Even though my parents have never mentioned the word immunity, I know that I can always call them, and that they’ll pick me up, or arrange for me to get home safe if they can’t drive, for what reason whatsoever. Questions will be asked, but they can wait until the next day. I have never really used it, except for once calling my dad and ask him to stay on the phone until I was home (he knew where I was, and I was sober). However, I am enternally grateful to know that I can always call, no matter where I am.

  31. I had it and my children will/do have it. I don’t think it starts with high school. I think it starts with being able to talk to your children and respond in an appropriate way to whatever they will tell you. My daughter is 9. She needs to be able to talk to me about difficult situations even if she was part of creating them. I’m not perfect but this can’t start on the day they enter HS or get their drivers license. Your children need to be able to trust that you will handle whatever they do and whatever they talk to you about in an appropriate, reasonable way.

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