Without supervision

For the record: I have no kids.

But I love "Supernanny." When I watch it, I'm simultaneously reminded why I'm glad I don't have kids, and saddened that these clearly overwhelmed people are the ones raising the next generation. But then Supernanny comes in and puts a few babies in the corner and writes up a few lists and yells at a few vacant-faced parents and then all is well. I'm usually itching to try out her technique when it's done and have to restrain myself from running down the street looking for a child to discipline.

However. I have noticed a few commonalities in the "Supernanny" episodes. For one thing, these families of upwards of four kids have houses that could swallow a schoolroom's worth of them. For another thing, there's absolutely no sense of decoration. It's like they came into their preprogrammed house with the beige carpet and the white walls and threw up a bedroom set, a dining room table and a TV armoire and called it a day. Does anyone have a plant? Art on the walls that didn't come from Bombay Company? Maybe even a coat of paint that doesn't suggest white? Yes, I suppose if you're having difficulties disciplining your eighteen children in the space of a small hangar airport, making sure there's a bookcase with knick-knacks is maybe not a priority. But … maybe it should have been before you hit child No. 15. It's like watching families try to live in the Soviet Union's idea of suburbia.

The worst part is that — and I know, this is "reality" television so we're not seeing all of it — the kids never seem to go out. If they do, it's to their own (highly-fenced-in, can't see beyond the slats) backyard. There's no sense of neighborhood, of going out to play with local kids in the front yard or a nearby playground, no sense of just letting the kids go ride their bikes and have an adventure. In fact, Supernanny has more than once chastised parents who just let their kids go out roaming in the neighborhood. She did take issue with them not telling mom they were going out — makes sense — but the larger problem seemed to be that they might be Out There Without Supervision (OTWS).

I love Supernanny. And I state again: No kids. But they're wrong. They're just dead wrong. It makes me so sad to see these kids bored to tears or playing videogames or bouncing around their wrecked basement playroom when it's clearly perfect weather outside and they're driving mom insane anyway. Isn't that what the outdoors is for? To get kids to run off that excess energy and give the parents at home a break? To foster some sense of independence?

Well, I used to think it was a combination of me being childfree and insensitive to the Major Dangers of being OTWS. And that may be some of it. But I read this column today, and I just had to grin.

"(F)or weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him
somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on
his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And
no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to
figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and
the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted
him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to
think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll
abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told
this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping
kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and
surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating
— for us and for them."

Sing it, sister. She's taken a lot of shit for it, but I'm with the commenters over at Boing Boing: There's a difference between being the mom in "Gone Baby Gone," who leaves her 3 year old alone in the apartment while she's down at the bar hoovering up illegal drugs and drinking — and being a parent who assesses her child's maturity and independence and lets him at 9 years old (because that's the kid's age in the story above) assert that maturity and independence.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and was not allowed to ride the Metro alone. Period. Given: The closest stop was a good 15 minute car ride, and until age 16 I had no car, but even then it would have been questionable. So when I was about 14 or 15, probably more like 15, I wanted to go down to see  this musician I loved do a signing at Tower Records. He was coming in on a summer's afternoon when I was supposed to be a camp counselor in training, so it wasn't like I'd miss any school. But when I mentioned it to mom, her response was, "Well, it's a shame you can't go." So I kept my trap shut and told camp I wouldn't be in and after mom took my brother to his camp on her way to work while I waited for my ride (to not come), I headed to the bus stop and took the bus to the Metro, and the Metro down to Tower Records, where I met up with my friends and had a jolly old time. Then we all came back together. And guess what: We all came back.

(Confidential to Larry: Mom's never heard this story, so if you're in a mood to keep next Passover weekend on an even keel, you might want to not share this entry.)

I don't know what I'd be like if I had a kid. I'd like to think I'd still back all of this up 100 percent, and that I'd want to raise a kid who would feel comfortable enough in the world that when he or she finally entered it full-time, permanently, on their own, it wouldn't be a foreign territory. But for now, what I'd really like is to know that more parents were acting that way. Because who wants to live in a world where the first time someone's offspring sees the true light of day it blinds them?


  1. LeendaDLL on 4/12/08 at 7:26 am

    love the story. while 9 sounds a bit young, i don’t know the area or the kid and therefore simply trust that the mother knew what she was doing. it’s a tough call these days. on one hand, i rarely see kids outside anymore (and I live in SoCal, land of perma good weather) and rarely see them walking anywhere. on the other, there have been multiple attempted abductions and ?? (rapes?) in my area – esp at the elementary school across the street – so I see the logic of keeping kids in eyesight.

    but i whole heartedly agree that parents are doing their kids a HUGE disservice by overprotecting them, never allowing them to deal with the real world on the real world’s terms. not only are they protected from all the “big bad people” and gazillion little things that can go wrong, but also from the realities of not being the best dressed or most popular – or whatever other “trauma” we suffered as kids.

    while parents seem to think they’re protecting their children, I think we’re bound to end up with a generation of incompetent slackers who don’t know how to take direction (from a boss), make simple decisions, or (gawd forbid) face big stark realities (such as bills, bad people, accidents…). Will these parents ever set their kids free?

    ps: interesting point on the lack of decorating. i wonder if that really is a consistent trait or if the show tends to remove the clutter before taping.

  2. Armchair News on 4/12/08 at 4:48 pm

    You are too kind, R.G., thanks very much! (By the way, I find it hard to go by Starbucks now and not wonder if you’re in *that* one.)

    :::shared admiration::::

  3. Armchair News on 4/12/08 at 4:51 pm

    Hey, I never thought about the show asking the home to be less cluttered, wall-wise. You may very well have a point there. And I do recognize that the “reality” on any of these shows is very carefully constructed.