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Helicoptering, hovering, and hyperextending, but holistically

From Time Magazine

Someone forwarded me the cover story from Time Magazine this week and asked for my opinion. In summary, it’s about what some are seeing as a trend in parenting, the trend already dubbed “helicopter parenting” and made famous by Lenore Skenazy, the author of “Free Range Kids.” Parents who parent too much, who hover and worry and overprotect to the point of smothering their kids.

I had two reactions. One is my usual reaction to any mass journalistic attempt to generalize: individuals just aren’t general. So yes, you can generalize a trend, but when you ask people whether it applies to anyone they know, they’re likely to say, well, not really.

On the other hand, yes, really. We all know the parents that she’s talking about. Here in Santa Cruz County, we have a sort of “two sides of the railroad tracks” split in the parent community, as far as I can see. The helicopter parents are generally on the other side from me. The ones who obsess about getting their child into the right preschool when the child’s in utero, who get their preschoolers tutors so they can be sure to get into the right private school, who hire clowns for their kids’ birthday parties and won’t let them go outside alone…

Oh, wait, I know people in that last category. So perhaps it’s not such a clear split, but you know what I said about generalizations above. I don’t personally know anyone who fits the description to a T, but yes, I do know people who pamper their kids past believability (from my 70’s Midwest childhood perspective), and I do know people who smother their kids, who expect ridiculous things from their kids. So it’s hard for me to say whether I think the article is so much on target or whether it takes what we’re worried about as parents right now and gives us something new to worry about.

However, there are some great passages. This one is one I could have written:

But too many parents, says Skenazy, have the math all wrong. Refusing to vaccinate your children, as millions now threaten to do in the case of the swine flu, is statistically reckless; on the other hand, there are no reports of a child ever being poisoned by a stranger handing out tainted Halloween candy, and the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million. When parents confront you with “How can you let him go to the store alone?,” she suggests countering with “How can you let him visit your relatives?” (Some 80% of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives.) Or ride in the car with you? (More than 430,000 kids were injured in motor vehicles last year.) “I’m not saying that there is no danger in the world or that we shouldn’t be prepared,” she says. “But there is good and bad luck and fate and things beyond our ability to change. The way kids learn to be resourceful is by having to use their resources.” Besides, she says with a smile, “a 100%-safe world is not only impossible. It’s nowhere you’d want to be.”

OK, I admit: I have actually said to someone, “If you’re worried about your child being abducted by someone, you’d better take a good look at your spouse, first.” (Parents are by far the biggest perpetrators of this crime. Strangers are a distant last after other relatives and friends.) Our paranoia from being able to know about every bad thing that happens to every kid in this country (and many others) has led us to make ridiculous decisions. We would rather give kids drugs for ADHD than let them have ample unstructured, unmonitored play time outside.

I and many other parents I know are curing this problem by turning off the TV, flipping past the gory front-page stories, and remembering to enjoy our children’s childhoods. But that’s a conscious decision you have to make. And yes, like Skenazy, I’ve been the recipient of some flak, most of it non-verbal looks from people of grandparenting age. But we did have at least one friend express shock at our letting our son go out in the (gated, fenced) front yard (on our rural, dead-end street)… alone!

Here’s another quote from the article that spoke to me:

Shutting down your inner helicopter isn’t easy.

No kidding. But for me, it wasn’t the inner helicopter, because like Skenazy, I’m a pretty fact-based person. I was raised that way. I look at the odds. That’s why I’ve never gambled in Vegas, and I only bought a lottery ticket once, as a joke, with someone else’s money. (I won four dollars!!) That’s why I do get my kids vaccinated and why I do put them in carseats but I don’t say no when they want to walk down the street alone.

For me it’s the constant external pressure. Yeah, my eyes do go to those headlines, the one I said above that we shouldn’t read. And I, like everyone else, gawk at the “Amber Alert” sign over the highway. And even more than that, I do notice and care about what my fellow community members think of me and my parenting. The writer of the article tries to make it seem like it’s parents of my generation who are the worst, but I can say I’ve gotten more bad vibes from those of my parents’ generation. Dunno why. This isn’t science, just observation.

When I think of my parents’ job of raising me and my four siblings, in some ways it was very, very easy for them not to fall into these traps. For starters, there were five of us. I remember a time in my life when I continually attempted to run away from home. I’d come home absurdly late from having been out all day, hoping that my mother would run up to me and say, “Finally! I missed you so!” Well, she didn’t. She probably greeted me with, “There you are — set the table!”

My parents did indulge some of our whims, when they had the time and resources to do so. There was a time when my mom would take me out of school to drive me to another town to take harp lessons. She would write me excuse notes that would say “Susana was not in school today.” And finally the school counselor asked me to have my mother put a reason on the notes. My mother didn’t want to lie. I believe the notes from then on read something like, “Susana didn’t want to go to school today”!

But they were constrained in time and money, so I find my response to my son’s asking for an iPod Touch an echo back thirty-five years: “That’s nice, dear. Put it on your wishlist!”

I will close with a last quote from the article, itself a quote, which does sum up the major thing I think the kids today are really missing in most American family life. Brilliance, it is clear, does not arise during a session at Kumon. It comes from exploring your own mind, turning into odd, dark lanes you haven’t gone down before, letting your fingers put together the Legos in ways that are not printed on the package, and most of all, being left alone enough that you come to enjoy it.

If you embrace this rather humbling reality, it will be easier to follow the advice D.H. Lawrence offered back in 1918: “How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.”

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Psychology.

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