When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
Last week, my kid’s teacher asked me if I’d be a chaperone on my son’s class trip to the Museum of Natural History. At first, my brain thought, Cool! Mastodons! So I signed up thinking nothing of it, but as soon as I got back in my car, I realized that I may have made a huge mistake.
Going to a museum with one kid is hard enough, and now I’ve got a half dozen of these children I have to look over, most of whom I’ve never met. I’ve never chaperoned anything before. In fact, I held my kid’s last birthday party at a pizza place because I figured that free pizza would incentivize parents to stick around and not leave me with their kid. Now, though, it’ll be just me, six screaming children and thousands of irreplaceable dinosaur bones.
What’s it like being a chaperone? Be it at a museum or on a kids playdate or, God forbid, when my kid is old enough to start dating, what do I need to know?
Basically: How do I effectively chaperone my kids?
The Expert Advice
Tanya, a teacher who organizes the school homecoming dance: When chaperoning children on a school trip, usually I’d call the parent ahead of time and give them my expectations. My rules are that you have to have eyes on the kids at all times and that you’re not there to discipline. If a kid is truly misbehaving, usually they’d contact me and I’d take care of it. The parents are just there to be an extra set of eyes and help keep the kids safe, even with little life skills like crossing the street. Sometimes I have to remind parents that they can’t do things like take pictures with the kids and put them on social media because some of the kids have restrictions on what can be posted. If they want to take pictures and send them to me, I can distribute them.
My husband and I have chaperoned a bunch of my kid’s trips and I have to remember to take off my teacher hat, but it can get muddy on occasion. When my husband chaperoned my son’s Bronx Zoo trip last month, he had a really tough time because the teacher was allowing kids to do things he thought were inappropriate. I said to him later, “As a chaperone, things are a little different than how they are at home. You have to be sure you do things as the teacher tells you and try to back off of our son as much as possible, because he’s there to be a kid.”
When it comes to the homecoming dance, which I oversee, we usually don’t have parents volunteering because, well, we’ve done it in the past and we’ve had some difficulties. Sometimes the parent wants to be a helicopter parent and won’t leave their kid alone; they’ll be all over them because they’re not dressed appropriately or not dancing appropriately. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, with the parent that will just let their kid do whatever they want while all they do is take selfies with them. Back when we did have parents do it, I tried to just encourage them be neutral and let their kid be. Don’t pay them any special attention, either positive or negative.
Diane Faist, daycare director: When I’m at Boy Scouts and I have a group of kids that are with me, I always try to make sure that I explain the rules to the children beforehand as given to me by the den leader. So I set the boundaries and try to keep everybody on track. When I see the kids doing a good job during the trip, I tell them that they’re doing a good job, and if I can, I try to reward them in some way, as many kids are used to having a goal to work toward. Sometimes I give out stickers, or I allow three extra minutes on the playground, whatever I can do to give them an incentive.
If kids are misbehaving, it can be hard. Usually, in a setting like that, there’s a teacher or den leader above you, but if you’re alone with the kids and it’s going to be another hour before you see the teacher, you may have to do something. I usually try getting down to their level and talking to them. I look them straight in the eyes and tell them that what they’re doing isn’t okay and that we need to do better. If that doesn’t work, after a few tries, I do give a negative consequence, like they may have to miss out on a ride or something like that. I’m not sure if everybody would do that, but if the teacher’s not around, you have to do something. Afterwards though, I always report to the teacher and let them know what happened and what I did about it.
With my own son, I try to make him the example for the other children, so I talk to him beforehand, and I ask him to make sure he’s doing the right thing so that other kids can follow his lead. I know that I’m also a little harder on him than the other children there, which I sometimes feel bad about. I do explain to him though, “Mommy wants to be a helper in the community and to do that, I need your support.”
I also try to make him the example when we have other kids over at our house on a playdate. When those begin, I usually give out three rules so that there aren’t too many rules for them to keep track of. The first rule is that they have to clean up after themselves and that whatever they’re playing with has to go away before a new toy comes out. The second rule is to be nice to each other. The third rule I usually cater to that specific child, so it may be no fighting or no jumping off the stairs or something like that. If it’s the first playdate and I don’t know the kid very well, I keep the playdate short, like two hours at most. As you get to know a kid, it can be longer. We even did a sleepover with one of my son’s friends, and he was a gem.
The more kids there are, the more you have to keep watch over them and the more reminders you’ll have to give, but if it’s just him and one or two other kids, and if they’re old enough, I may let them play alone in the upstairs playroom and check in every 20 minutes or so. I also keep the monitor on so I can hear what they’re saying. If things go silent, of course, I check on them right away. As an incentive, I also tell them that if they want to come back for another playdate, they need to listen. I haven’t had to yet, but if it got really out of control, I’d probably send them home. Generally, though, kids respond to the rules.
Debbie, mother of a teen girl: My daughter’s boyfriend is a couple of years older than her, which made me really nervous at first. He’s 19 while she’s 16, and I’ve been out with them on a number of dates. Needless to say, my daughter really didn’t want me to come, but I explained to her that she has to build that trust.
When it came to driving, during the first few dates, I went with them and sat in the back seat, with them in the front while the boyfriend drove. I wanted to see how they interacted in the car because I wanted to be sure his concentration was on the road and not on her, though I’m sure he was on his best behavior with me around. I haven’t been with them to the movies yet, but when it comes to going to the mall, they’ll usually walk in front of me and I’ll tag along behind and do my own window shopping. We may also split up, and I’ll set up a place to meet back up in 40 minutes or so. When we do that, we each go our own separate ways, but I’ll usually try to see what they’re up to and how they’re acting without me.
When it comes to doing dinner, it can be pretty uncomfortable, so I definitely recommend doing it with four people so it’s more like a double date, which makes it a little better. The first few times it’s pretty awkward because you don’t know what to say or what to expect. I had to pull things out of him, as teenagers often don’t just freely say things. I asked him about his family, which he didn’t want to talk about at first, but eventually, he did. I wanted to be sure he was raised right, so those questions are important.
Sometimes, too, they do “teen talk,” where they talk about their friends or they’re showing each other stuff on their smartphones. In those cases, I’ll say, “I want to see,” and sometimes they show me, and sometimes they don’t. I want things to be open, though, because nobody wants to sit at a table with people just looking at their phones. Also, with kids and social media now, you often don’t know what they’re looking at.
During these dates, I’m looking at him to be sure his heart is in the right place and that he’s not trying to take advantage of her. With her, I want to be sure she’s comfortable and that there’s a smile on her face.
Carl “Bigthangs” Vinson, celebrity bodyguard, youth mentor and motivational speaker: When keeping someone safe, you have to be punctual and be aware of your surroundings. You should know where the nearest exit is, and if necessary, where the nearest hospital is. You never know when you might need to know that information. When protecting a group, you can either be in front of them or trail behind them — there are different advantages to each. When you’re in front, you can clear a path for the group and lead the way, which is especially helpful when going through a crowd. When you’re following the group, the advantage is that you can see everything going on.
You also have to be ready at all times for the unexpected. In a public setting, you never know who is who, so you have to keep your guard up. Try to read people’s body language, and if you’re concerned about someone, try to steer the kids away from them, but don’t focus too much on any one person, because everyone can be suspect. That’s just the world we live in. Sadly, there are people out there who want to bring harm to children, and those people are the biggest scum of the earth. From having done a lot of work with youth as a mentor and motivational speaker, I can honestly say that they’re innocent souls, and we adults need to do what we can to protect them.