I’d never heard the term helicopter parent until I was accused of being one in a comment here. Apparently, I was one due to my no-sleepover rule.
Rather than be upset by this accusation, I began to wonder–what is this thing they speak of…this “helicopter parent?” So I dug deeper; if I’m going to be labeled something, I at least want to know what it is.
Like its namesake, a helicopter parent hovers over her child, ready to swoop down in an instant when they are in trouble, upset, or need an extra ice cube for their purified bottled water. Helicopter parenting is also referred to as “the world’s longest umbilical cord.” In small children, it’s the tendency of mom and dad to shadow the child, constantly monitoring him on the playground, and stepping in when another child pushes him down.
Helicopter parenting manifests itself when we make sure our child is in a certain class, with a certain teacher, or with a certain coach, because as parents, it’s our job to see that our children “get what is best for them.” With the rapid rise of the cell phone, it’s easy to be a helicopter parent when your child is only a speed-dial away.
Okay, so helicopter parenting just seems to be really involved parenting. Is that so bad?
Is it terrible parenting to want to know where your children are, who they are playing with, and if they are being treated kindly? Is it detrimental to children to know that they can count on their parents to be there when they need them? If so, maybe I am a helicopter parent. But when you’ve carried a tiny being inside of you for forty weeks, gone through hours of pain and labor to get them safely into this world, and when you hold their fragile body securely in your arms and realize at that moment that you’d do anything to keep them safe, helicopter parenting doesn’t sound like a bad thing.
Free Range Parent
The other parenting style is called free-range parenting. As opposed to overprotective and over-scheduling helicopter parents, free-range parents have a “give them the same freedom we had as kids,” mindset. I grew up in a small farming town, and this description reminds me of cows left to roam freely. Wandering aimlessly along fields, streams, and forests, munching on grass and doing…whatever cows do. Sometimes they get stuck in barbed wire fences or mud pits and I wonder, how does the farmer know where his cows are?
Growing up in a small town, I was able to roam freely, to explore canal banks and abandoned potato cellars. If I wanted to ride my bike, I didn’t ask my mom. I just got on my bike and took off, tearing all over a town that seemed so safe it was boring. I never had a cell phone to check in with my parents. They told me a time to be home and I was home at that time, end of story. In high school, when the softball coach was hard on me, no dad of mine stormed the field in my defense.
Come to think about it, I think I was raised as a cow…I mean a free-range child.
So which type of parent is best?
I think it’s fairly obvious that balancing somewhere in the middle of helicopter and free-range parenting is best. But most of us aren’t that good at slacklining. (Believe me, I tried during a brief Birkenstock, dreads-are-cool stint in college). Most parents lean toward one side or the other…so which are you?
Given my childhood, it would seem I would lean toward free-range parenting. And I wish I could. I really wish I could let my kids hop on their bikes and go. But we live in an expansive city, with speeding cars and plenty of strangers. I wish I could let my daughter spend the night at a friend’s house from school, whom I don’t know, just because I trust in humankind. While I wish I could, but I just can’t. Because I read the news.
Is there a good, better, or best type of parent? That is a rhetorical question.
The backpack incident
It was the first week of school for my little Kindergartner. She was ecstatic about going to a big school on her own, meeting new friends, and carrying a shiny new backpack. Everything was still new, exciting, and a little scary. We were in a hurry that morning and rushed out the door with the ladybug backpack still perched on the stairs. When we got to the school, with only a few minutes to spare, M discovered that the backpack was missing.
“We have to go back,” she begged.
“We don’t have time,” I insisted. “It’s not a big deal.”
It was a big deal, to a Kindergartner who was only on her third day of school. The bell rang, and I impatiently convinced her to go to school without the backpack, tears welling in her huge blue eyes.
I will never in a million years forget the way her shoulders slumped and shuddered as she walked that million-mile walk into school, sobbing. It was not a contrived, snobby little fit (I know the difference because there are plenty of those), but rather her little heart was truly broken. I will never forget the way I felt. Like garbage. Sad garbage. How could I let her start her bright new day off that way?
The Voice Inside My Head
The whole drive home, the accusation rang in my head: “helicopter parent, helicopter parent…if you get that backpack for her, you will be a helicopter parent”. I tried to take that voice’s side. In the grand scheme of things, M would survive if she didn’t have her backpack for a day. It would actually teach her a lesson–yes, that’s it! This experience would teach her a valuable lesson in responsibility. The devil in my head assured me, “Just drive away; she needs to experience disappointment.” The angel in my heart said, “But she’s just a small child. Would it really be so hard to go back and get her backpack? It would mean the world to her.”
I pictured those heaving shoulders, and my heart-broken little girl at school all day, sad and alone, and I realized…some life-lessons can wait. Right now, my heart was telling me to go home, grab that backpack, and rush back to school. My head was still chiding, “helicopter parent, helicopter parent.”
I listened to my heart.
When I peeked into her classroom and saw her head down, silent tears falling on her desk, I was 100% certain I had made the right decision. I cracked open the door, made eye contact with M, and held up the backpack with a smile. She instantly lit up and there was sunshine in her eyes again.
In the grand scheme of things, that backpack probably wasn’t a big deal. She would have gotten over it and been just fine. But now she knew I was her advocate. That I cared about her enough to drive home and get the backpack. That I loved her.
So, which are you?
There are varying degrees of each type of parenting, and some days we may feel more like helicopters, and others, like cows. This article isn’t meant to condone or condemn one type of parenting over the other. I hope it merely gets you thinking.
The 30-year-old man who asks his mother to write his resume has been an obvious recipient of extreme helicopter parenting. On the other hand, the four-year-old preschooler who winds up on your doorstep asking for a snack may be the result of an over-relaxed free-range parent.
When do we justify that “hovering over” our children is truly in their best interest, and when do we realize that leaving them on their own, to explore and figure out life’s intricacies, is what will help them most?
Like I said, I don’t know the answers, but it gets me thinking.