By Carol Dunlap
For the Salisbury Post
Summer is here, and you probably have your child-care plans settled by now. The Healthy Parents Rowan Committee wants to promote a discussion about children being supervised in the coming months. Supervising children can be exhausting and difficult, but is critical to making sure they are safe and out of harm’s way. Inadequate supervision is one of the leading causes of child neglect and injuries.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines supervision as “critical watching and directing (as of activities or a course of action).” Sounds simple enough, right? Not so easy when you are tired and overwhelmed. It can be especially hard when you are supervising several children without a time-out. One reason supervision can be tricky is because the type of care a child needs changes as they grow.
Most of us are aware that infants need constant direct supervision. Even when they are sleeping, we keep babies close to us or use electronic monitors in case they need our attention. Hasn’t every parent held their own breath while checking to make sure their child is breathing easily during sleep? Infants simply cannot survive without an adult’s constant management and care.
Supervision is less stressful if you “baby-proof” your house. Take some time to cover electrical outlets, put baby locks on cabinets and make sure harmful chemicals are safely out of reach. Pack away your treasures, and lock up any dangerous or poisonous items. You’ll breathe a lot easier and you won’t have to say “NO” as often. I found a great online pamphlet from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to help you childproof your house. That website is http://www.cpsc. gov/cpscpub/pubs/grand/12steps/12steps.html.
As infants grow into toddlers a different type of continuous supervision becomes critical. As children grow, they start to crawl, walk, run and climb. They can open doors, and play hide and seek. Often, their physical abilities outpace their mental skills to judge what is safe. For example, a normal 5-year-old is able to run but may not realize that it is dangerous to chase a ball into the street without stopping to look for approaching cars. At this stage, if your child is awake, they should be supervised at all times. They are still very vulnerable to injury.
Young school age children (roughly age 7-10) are a bit more independent, but still demand close management. Children in this stage who are very mature can be left alone for short periods ó say, maybe 10-15 minutes ó but they should still be within hearing range. To feel and be safe, they should know that a responsible, trustworthy adult is close by.
Although there is no hard, fast rule or law about the age at which a child can be left unsupervised for short periods of time, experts generally recommend never leaving children under the age of 11 without adult supervision. Even after the age of 11, you must use your judgment to determine if the child is ready to be left unsupervised. For example, if a child is mature and can make good safety decisions, you might be able to leave him or her alone while you run a quick errand. Another child may not be ready to be on his or her own until much older.
The age at which you can leave a child unsupervised depends on the answer to many questions. Is your neighborhood safe? Do you have neighbors you trust to keep an open eye for unusual activity? Is there a neighbor your child can go to if he or she feels unsafe? Do you have a safety plan in place so that your child knows what to do or who to call in emergencies? Does you child understand the safety plan? Will your child tell you if he or she feels unsafe? Does your child have the ability to think through a crisis and respond in a safe manner?
Once children reach an age they can be left alone for short periods, even a few hours, there are other types of supervision to consider. Research suggests that teenagers whose parents provide age-appropriate supervision are less likely to use alcohol and other drugs, become teen parents and drop out of school. Supervising teens means that parents are aware of where their children are spending their time, with whom, and the activities in which they engage. That means asking lots of questions, keeping an open line of communication, verifying their location, setting boundaries and holding them responsible for those boundaries.
Next month I will spend a bit more time discussing the issues specific to adequately supervising your older children and the special challenges they present. Until then, remember to make sure your children are supervised by a trusted adult. It will keep them safe & happy!
Carol Dunlap, director of Prevent Child Abuse Rowan, writes a monthly column for the Post on behalf of the Healthy Parenting Committee. Contact her at 704-639-1700.
By Carol Dunlap