[Week 27 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Who decides how much supervision children need?
How much supervision do children need? Who gets to decide what supervision is appropriate? And who gets to supervise? This should depend on things like:
- age of child
- individual needs of child
- evidence of trustworthiness and responsibility of child
- time spent away from home
- immediate environment at a given time
- experiences the child has had
Sometimes it will also depend on the experience of parent and that is okay. Parents are faced with such decisions on a daily basis. They must weigh how various things are coming together.
People sometimes act like there is one exactly right way and exactly wrong way of approaching a situation, about exactly how much supervision a child should have, but I disagree with that.
There is not one set perfect way to supervise all children or even one child at a given time. The overall relationship and communication of the parents and child will have more effect on how any supervision affects the child than exactly what kind of supervision is going on. It is one-dimensional to label someone else’s supervision approach. It is also typically more self-gratifying than helpful.
Who came up with the term helicopter parent?
I highly suspect the term helicopter parent was coined by a psychologist who only sees families seeking help for conflict. And unfortunately this would probably include many families who don’t really have significant problems, but were coercively referred by meddlesome school personnel. For some weird reason, children are suppose to be closely guarded in schools, but a parent who wants to keep a close eye on his own children is overbearing.
Ironically, after the child has spent hours every day away from home, the parent is often labeled as hovering and intrusive for asking simple questions about how the day went or what the child’s current plans are. One could get very suspicious that the goal of those running the schools is to drive a wedge between parent and child. Having a derogatory label to shame interested parents makes this much easier.
The combination of hours spent under the supervision of others and the subsequent diminished value of parental influence unsurprisingly leads many children to disregard parents. In the child’s mind, parents become easily relegated to the roles of janitor and bus driver. From the parents’ perspective, they have to be constantly asking what is going on.
To hear some people, parents are supposed to be all-knowing and held accountable while at the same time be invisible and never interfere. For example, don’t follow your toddler too close around the playground, but don’t let him get hit by swings! or Don’t set limits on where your child can explore, but make sure he does his homework every night.
What does the word supervision mean?
Supervision sounds like a super power. And maybe it is. It is a skill that parents need to feel free to develop so that their children can grow and mature without suffering serious consequences. The prefix ‘super’ means above, over, higher in rank, greater or better, extra or additional. ‘Vision’ obviously has to do with looking at something. This fits perfectly with the parental role.
The last thing parents need is some self-appointed know-it-all setting exact rules about what is appropriate supervision and what isn’t. The parents are the ones with the best potential to understand what their children need protection from and guidance about.
Parents are the ones best positioned to be aware of their own children’s blind spots, inexperience, physical attributes, and skills. Let me use swimming as an example. I know children who could be allowed to play somewhat freely in the local swimming pool from a young age. They had learned to deal with water with apparent ease. Their parents could sit off to the side and glance at them regularly with little concern. Their children had only had beginner swimming lessons, but they knew how to float.
Then there were my children. My children sunk like rocks from the moment they were born. I gave up on the classic swimming lessons for my kids because the only floating they were physically capable of was 2 feet under water. After recognizing this, I saw that I had to teach them to swim well enough so that they could stay on top of the water. Another parent watching me may have thought I was overreacting, as well as depriving my children of group lessons. I, on the other hand, had seen my children sink.
Knowing the limits of our communication
It is easy for an outsider to not understand the language and signals of another family. We all know the difference between having the exact same conversation with someone who knows us well versus someone we barely know. There are things we don’t have to explain to someone who knows us. Misunderstandings are less likely when we know someone and there is more motivation to make sure that things are well communicated.
When we watch another family interact, we need to be careful about presuppositions and assumptions. It is quite possible that a certain phrase or action has background and mutual understanding that we have no clue about. Maybe they are teasing. Or maybe they are being patient with each others needs.
In other words, there may actually be supervision going on at different levels that are not easy for an outsider to see. So don’t go measuring how you should be supervising your children by what you think other parents are doing.
For example, my adult children still let me tell them to drive carefully. They know that I am saying it more for myself than for them. They know why I am uncomfortable with driving and they know that I have had a child die. They say, “Yes, mom.” with much respect and compassion, but anyone who didn’t know our family would probably listen to that interchange and think my children should be offended.
There is nothing wrong with children learning to be patient with a parent’s concerns. They can come to understand that it is not a reflection on their character. It can be an instance of considering another’s feelings.
The supervision continuum
There is no easy-to-define, exact point in a child’s life when he doesn’t need to be supervised. Yes, there will be a time when a child is grown and completely in charge of his or her own decisions, but before that time there will likely be a mix of levels of supervision.
Toddlers need to be kept from putting odd things in their mouths, but they can usually be left alone in a room when they are sleeping. They need to be kept from running into the street unawares, but they can often be allowed to run around a small house without eyes on them every moment.
Pre-teenage children may be fine going for a walk in their own neighborhood, but it probably isn’t a good idea to let them go for a walk by themselves in a large, unknown airport. They might be ready to handle buying a few items in the grocery store, but they probably aren’t ready to be responsible for keeping track of the monthly grocery expenditure without close supervision.
The goal is to supervise children in a way that leads to independence, but doesn’t abandon them to harmful consequences of inexperience or the predators of this world. The children’s hearts and minds must be engaged to think things through while their options are still appropriately limited. A child can learn a lot about driving a car before he is large or strong or mindful enough to give it a go on his own.
Giving a child adult freedoms and responsibilities too soon is like putting him in the driver’s seat on the freeway when he can neither reach the pedals or see out the windows. He may feel ‘grown-up’ and self-satisfied for a few moments, but he is in a helpless position that serves no good purpose. He can’t take any meaningful action and he can’t get out of the way.
Supervision and relationship
Supervision is not doing things for someone else that he can do himself. It is encouraging and guiding, watching and helping. The supervisor is someone who sees a bigger picture and overall plan. If he interferes excessively, then he risks not really supervising. If he ignores what is going on, he cannot offer helpful input.
Good supervision takes communication and observation. Good supervision leads to strong relationship, as well as appreciation for each person involved. It may be human nature to chafe against oversight and complain about parental concerns, but parents can overcome this. The strategy is partly to ignore those who denigrate this parental function and partly to embrace every chance to teach and supervise your children. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for wanting to spend time with or interact with your children.