The family friendly birthday party

Everyday amazements - November 2005


Dan Baron

We’re at a birthday "pool" party at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston. My 5-year-old daughter, Dina, swims a few yards and makes up games to play with me, other parents and their kids. Perfect. When it’s over, we go back to the men’s locker room to change before joining our friends for cake and ice cream.

Suddenly, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Moments after we enter the locker room, a man is screaming at me, asking how I could bring a young girl into the men’s locker room.

"Don’t you know the rules?" the man asks me. Then he makes a wayward and offensive comment about the male anatomy.

What happens when you meet a person or find a corner of your world that is not—at least for a moment—"family friendly"? How do you make sense of the situation and do something constructive about it?

After the man speaks, I get a little defensive. I say I did not know it would be a problem to have my daughter change in the men’s locker room. No one said anything about it when we walked into the building or the locker room. No one told me there was an alternative. I’ve been with my young daughter in locker rooms and bathrooms elsewhere and it was no problem.

I admit, my first impulse is to argue with the man who raises his voice. Still, there is something more important going on: When I look at my daughter, she is concerned and looking to me for guidance. I hold onto her and make sure she’s safe, then open our locker, quickly help her undress, dry off and put on her dress.

That’s when a staff person at the Y hastily shuttles my daughter and me out of the locker room without fully explaining that we have an alternative.

Later, my wife and I tell Dina that we should not have been rushed out of there. She appears to understand. We explain to her that no matter what the rules are, there’s also no reason to be rude to anyone like that man was to us.

How many times do parents struggle to get to the bottom of an unsettling situation that affects their kids at school, in a doctor’s office or elsewhere in a community?

I call the executive director of the McGaw Y, Bill Geiger. He tells me he has three daughters and is sympathetic about this situation. He also tells me he has given this topic a lot of thought and that addressing locker room matters is "a Y-wide issue." The Y, like a lot of places these days, is trying to figure out how to serve families in a way that is both appropriate and inviting.

Now, I learn, one of the biggest questions may simply be how parents, community members and the Y can communicate more effectively with each other.

When I call Geiger a week later and tell him I want to do a story about it, he agrees to talk about the issue again. That’s when I wonder: Was my experience just an unfortunate encounter, an isolated misunderstanding? Or was it related to a broader issue that can be addressed by all sides?

After piecing together what happened, I believe the latter is true.

It turns out that the guy who made those comments to me was right in one sense—the Y does not permit parents to bring children into the men’s locker room. (True, this man did appear to miss the part about the Y being a place where you treat all people with respect).

Unfortunately, I didn’t see the sign spelling out this facility’s policy. Mea culpa.

Meanwhile, my friend who threw the party also didn’t tell me that we should have used another locker room more specifically designed for families—even though that information is stated in the contract the Y gives to people who host these parties. That’s understandable, though, I learned after reading a copy of the contract for a kids’ pool party. A statement about which locker room to use is item No. 7 in the second section on the back side of the contract. I have to admit I sometimes don’t read all the details of contracts when I’m planning a birthday party, either.

I also learn that at least two staff members at the Y are responsible for directing participants to appropriate areas in the Y when a party is taking place. No staff member said a thing to me about the party other than, "Please take a towel."

The Y, Geiger says, could improve the way it informs parents about where they should go with their children—especially since it now has seven locker rooms, including those near the pool area that families can use.

"We have to do a better job of communicating to families so that when they walk in, it’s simple and clear," Geiger says. "We are working hard to make that happen. If that means reinforcing training or creating better signage, we need to do that. We can also do a better job of communicating our values throughout our facility."

One legal scholar who has extensively studied a range of gender-related issues commends YMCAs in general for the way the organization approaches these matters.

"I think many of the Ys are doing the right thing by actually building facilities to accommodate everyone," says Mary Anne Case, professor of law at the University of Chicago. "If the issue is how they communicate what’s appropriate, at least they already have facilities in place."

Why go to such great lengths to relate details surrounding this incident? One reason: Maybe figuring out what works for families will seem a little more manageable if we’re simply more open about it.

We don’t live in an ideal world, of course. I expect we’ll all come across questions in the coming years regarding how our society handles delicate issues related to gender, children, privacy and safety. Next time I’m at a birthday party for kids, though, I hope I can spend more time paying attention to what my daughter really needs—friends, cake and ice cream.


Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at

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