The Supervising Parent


I am not sure what age others consider appropriate for kids to run around completely unsupervised . . . at a busy water park . . . for a birthday party. But for me, five or six years old is not the age.

Are birthday parties free childcare now?

I recently attended a birthday party at a water park, and the birthday boy’s dad and I were the only parents consistently watching the kids. The remaining parents sat in the shade halfway across the park and rarely checked in.

The kids were fighting on the stairs up the waterslide and almost knocked another kid down the stairs — twice! Two of them were trying to kick other kids in the head when they were swimming underwater. Another pair tried to hold a kid’s arms behind his back and push his face in the water jets of the splash pad. And the worst was when one boy tried to hold a kid underwater who was struggling to swim and come up for air.

I am not trying to play some savior or hero here, but where were the other parents? Why was I one of the only people concerned about the safety of not only my child, but the safety of everyone at the party? Is this what birthday parties are these days? A place to completely disengage with your children and shift the responsibility to someone else?

Helicopter parenting versus engaged parenting.

Some might see me close by the kids and assume I am a helicopter parent that just cannot let go. Or a controlling parent that has to be involved in every decision. But from my vantage point, I am just being an engaged parent.

I allow my kids to take risks while reminding them to listen to their own bodies and mind. I allow injuries to happen (within reason). I allow disagreements and fighting, to encourage problem-solving. I set boundaries regarding safe and unsafe play, and hold firm.

Water play for our family has very strict boundaries though. It only takes a small lapse in attention for catastrophic events to occur. My children know they are not to go in the water without telling a trusted adult and waiting for their verbal acknowledgment. If flotation devices are not in use, an adult must have an eye on each head 100% of the time. And rough play of any kind is prohibited.

Maybe you think my rules for water are extreme. I might possibly be a helicopter parent when it comes to water play.

But for that, I will not apologize.

Those high school kids working as lifeguards are doing the best they can. But when hundreds of people are swimming at once, it is impossible to keep an eye on everyone. I refuse to put my confidence in another adult at a public location or birthday party for my child.

The last time I checked, I committed to this parenting gig. I didn’t decide that I only parent when it is convenient for me. Or that an invitation to a birthday party or play date is code for parenting disengagement.

The need for adult interactions (a predicament).

Sometimes I wonder if the disengagement with the children comes from a need for adult connection and interaction. This is often a personal predicament for me, as it can be nice to interact with the parents of your children’s friends. You likely have a lot in common, with kids of the same age, the same school, or the same activity preferences. It can be tempting to get consumed in conversation.

Trust me, I get it. I get excited to talk with another adult who isn’t family or a work colleague too. So I try to get the best of both worlds by having the other parent walk with me while we supervise from a distance. Or keep the conversation to one or two questions and then say, “Let’s pick this conversation back up in a few minutes after I check in with my son.”

This might be why I am often the loner parent at the party who isn’t fully engaging with another adult. But in the end, I am okay with that.

I am okay with being the “overprotective” parent.

I am okay with being the engaged parent.

I am okay with attending this activity to make my child happy while keeping them safe and spending time alone.

What are your thoughts on birthday party or play date etiquette?