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Attempting to ground the helicopter parent in me

November 5, 2010 - Betsy Bethel
I swear I am not a hover-aholic. I don't even like helicopters. They make me nervous and always remind me of war ("Miss Saigon," "M*A*S*H" or "Blackhawk Down," anyone?).

Today, these insect-like beasts have taken on a whole new persona in the "helicopter parent." I first read about these uber-overprotective and overinvolved parents several years ago in an article by a college admissions officer who was appalled by parents wanting to sit in on their child's college interviews (OK that's not sooo bad) ... and then proceeding to try and answer all the questions for the applicants!! She also told of parents calling up college professors — at home — to heckle them about their students' grades.

The distasteful phenomena has reached such a widespread audience even Lindsay Lohan would be jealous. Yesterday, I met a woman who turned her back on an 18-year teaching career, not because the kids were so difficult to handle, but because their parents were. They argued every grade and "never wanted to admit their child wasn't perfect," to quote my new friend. I know you teachers out there can relate. The stories are mind-blowing.

I am saying right here and now, on the record, that I will not become a helicopter parent.

But I admit to having tendencies — instances when I've caught myself in hover mode and had to check myself, ease off and reconfigure my parenting strategy. And when I do examine my behavior, I find my helicopterish leanings have everything to do with me and my insecurities and very little to do with my daughter's behavior or future development.

During Emma's Halloween party at school, for instance, I could not keep my hands off her hat. I was so distracted by straightening and re-straightening that too-big Jessie hat on her head that I had no time enjoy the other kids' costumes or my daughter's delight with the games the school set up. I must have re-positioned that dang hat 100 times. Why was I so obsessed? Because I was the one who ordered the red felt cowboy hat online and duct-taped the red yarn inside. If it looked crappy, darn it, it was my fault, and I couldn't bear that my attempt fell short of being blue-ribbon worthy (there wasn't even a contest, by the way, and I knew that). After an hour or so, I recognized the futility and ridiculousness of my behavior and left Emma alone.

I should know by now that the more I fuss, the worse off I'll be. Do you know how many adorable outfits in which I have so proudly clothed her, only for them to be covered in spit-up, food, milk, dirt, markers or holes in a matter of minutes? How about the times I have prepped her on proper behavior and manners before a trip to the store or a dinner with Grandpa, only to be disappointed that she STILL asked for every toy or treat she saw and STILL crawled under the table and blew bubbles in her milk?

And she's not even in kindergarten yet. What am I going to do when she has her first book report or, gasp! science project? I will NOT be that parent who stays up all night painting and tweaking and typing. Or will I?

It's not that I believe in completely hands-off parenting. I've witnessed that, too, and it ain't pretty. Overparenting begets insecurity and entitlement, but neglect can breed damaged souls with abusive or self-abusive tendencies. So guidance is necessary; hovering is not. There's a book called "The Idle Parent" by English writer Tom Hodgkinson that is a wake-up call to well-meaning parents. He calls it being idle, but really he's exhorting us to relax, let our kids be kids and learn from them as much as, if not more than, we try to teach them.

He explains through personal anecdotes why he shuns family outings and other passive enterainment and extols the virtues of free play. He cleverly juxtaposes historical examples of children's "place" in society with 21st century parenting practices. He points out his own shortcomings and what he has learned from his children. I like that his style is matter-of-fact, not preachy.

In explaining why he believes family outings should be banned, he says: "The truly idle delight in staying home. At home you are free. You can create your own fun, at no cost whatsoever. You can let the children run around while you read a book. ... People are scared to stay at home all day because they think the kids will get bored. ... We think we are enjoying ourselves at the theme park, but really it's a disabling sort of fun because it's passive. It actually follows the familiar pattern of 21st century life: long periods of boredom interspersed with the occasional thrill."

He talks about the importance of nurturing — rather than taming — our kids' wild sides. "Respect the child, for each is unique and different. Help your child to follow its (sic) own course." He cautions against ovrscheduling: "Too much activity will tend to make them dependent on outside authorities for the structure of their daily lives. Time is free; they should be given as much free time as possible, in order to feed their own imaginations and create self-reliance."

What a difference compared to our modern-day mentality of imposing our agendas and keeping the kids busy so they'll stay out of trouble.

When I think about Hodgkinson's words, my memory alights on the times Emma seems happiest. It is, indeed, when she is playing "explorer" in the yard or is totally immersed in a world of her own design in her bedroom, in the hallway, on the kitchen floor, in the bathtub. She can play with a single 2-inch scrap of paper for a half hour: by turns it's a rain cloud, a boat, a horse, a ghost, a princess, a bird. The other day, when I came out of the bathroom, all was quiet upstairs. I peeked in her room, and there she was, surrounded by her stuffed animals and other random objects, talking for the "characters." I love to listen and watch her play, free from the shadow of my hovering form. There is no video she can watch, CD she can hear, board game or interactive game she can play, or lesson I can teach that can compare with the organic learning that takes place when she is left alone with her imagination.

This inspires me even more to bail out of the noisy chopper. I have to constantly remind myself: Pull back, set down and kill the engine! Listen to your child's ideas. Look her in the eyes, and say, I hear you. I love you. I believe in you. Don't stifle, overdirect and stuff her life with activities that are more important to you than to her.

In the final chapter of "The Idle Parent," Hodgkinson sums it up: "The important thing in parenting is not what you DO but your relationship with your child. It is how you ARE that counts. Rather than try to follow a list of somebody else's rules, we must concentrate first and foremost on our mental attitude toward our children."

Happy idling!


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