Some vital questions about our children's safety
The questions I wil address in my next posts are linked to what is usually called "parental monitoring". We prefer to call the vital parental attitude of keeping an ear to the ground "parental vigilant care". The reason is that the term "monitoring" has a controlling aura, and as I shall make clear, a parents' vigilant care is all but controlling. Parental vigilant care has been demonstrated to be the best guarantee against most dangers that affect our children in the world of today.
Vigilant care becomes manifest when the child feels that the parent is close by, shows a caring interest about what is going on in the child's life, and if necessary, checks or intervenes to keep the child safe. The secret of effective vigilant care is to exercise it at the right level. Thus, when there are no obvious signs of alarm in the child's behavior, the parent displays open attention. At this level, the parent asks about the child's life, studies, friends and leisure activities, but does not interrogate. The parent also establishes contact with some people in the child's surroundings (for instance, some parents of the child's classmates, the sports' or music coach, etc.), but in open and legitimate ways, and not behind the child's back. The parent also takes care of creating some joint activities with the child (e.g., visits to the grandparents, or perhaps a joint leisure activity), for at those times the parent is close by and the child feels the parent's presence in a positive way. If, however, signs of alarm appear (for instance, the child lies or comes home later than agreed), the parent goes over to the level of focused attention. At this level, the parent says to the child explicitly: "There were some events in which you didn't abide by the rules. So I've decided that every time you go out, I'll ask you four questions: 'Where?' 'With whom?' 'What's the program?' and 'When will you be back?' So long as you give me this information and abide by the curfew time, I'll be content!" It turns out that when parents insist, most kids will give this information, even if they make a sour face. However, if there are signs that the child is already in trouble, the parents go over to the highest level of vigilant care, that of one-sided measures designed to help the child out of her plight. At this level the parents take concrete action and not only ask questions. Examples of such measures are: stopping pocket money, restricting internet use, conducting a telephone tree, contacting the child's friends or parents, looking for the child in different places, and more. A detailed description of unilateral parental steps can be found in my book "Parental vigilant care" (Routledge).
The present post focuses on a common question by parents: "What's the purpose of asking? In any case, I cannot stop her from doing what she wants! In addition, she'll probably lie to me!" What is crucial for parents to understand is that vigilant care is not the same as having control over th child. The research evidence is clear: Vigilant care reduces danger, even if the child doesn't cooperate! The reason vigilant care helps is that the child feels that the parent is close by, thinks and cares about her, in short, that she is in the parent's mind. This mental presence creates an accompaniment that fosters safety. By showing the child that she is in your mind, you're also making sure that you're in her mind. This makes her take better care of herself. Vigilant care establishes the right amount of parental presence in the child's life, giving her space, when she shows herself responsible, and stepping in to watch more closely, when there are signs of irresponsible behavior.
We have shown that this mental accompaniment is effective also with children who are over 18. In a study we made about novice drivers, parents learned to ask their son to send them a text message, when they arrived at their destination. And in case the son went to an outing with friends, to send another one before midnight. It turned out that the great majority cooperated with this request. And they drove more safely. We know that, because in that study we installed a machine in the car, giving information about actual driving practice. The reason they drove more safely is that they felt they were in their parent's mind, and therefore the parents were also in their minds.
When parents understand that vigilant care is a manifestation of parental presence and not an attempt at control, the child becomes more and more willing to accept it. But the parents do not depend on the child's willingness to cooperate. They exercise vigilant care also when the child protests! This strengthens them considerably. The new authority manifested by vigilant care is the least invasive kind of parental authority, and yet, it is possibly stronger than traditional authority, for it does not aim for the child's obedience (which a rebellious child will simply withhold). The nice surprise, however, is that under those conditions, the chances for the child's cooperation grow! Not only that, research shows that the child internalizes the parents' vigilant care. Parental care gradually turns into self-care.