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Finding Middle Ground Between ‘Helicopter,’ ‘Free Range’

February 22, 2012
By BETSY BETHEL - Life Associate Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Most parents today have at least heard of the term "helicopter parenting."

It's a term coined by college admissions personnel a few years ago to describe parents who "hover" over their children during the admissions process. Then, when their children fly the nest, they fly right alongside them, intervening on behalf of their children with professors, deans and residence hall directors, on everything from roommate assignments to exam grades.

This parenting style contrasts sharply with what has been dubbed "free-range" parenting, a backlash to the "helicopter" trend, first written about by Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids." Skenazy says children become more independent and self-sufficient when they are set free, even at the elementary-school age. She made parents choke on their lattes when she reported that she let her 9-year-old navigate the New York City subway system alone.

Article Photos

Jamie O’Hare of Wheeling supervises while her son, Aidan, 6, works on homework.

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Educators and child advocates encourage parents to seek a middle ground.

Helicopter parenting can be dangerous to a child's mental health and self-image. A small 2010 study of college freshman by Neil Montgomery cites a relationship between hovering parents and neurotic children. Montgomery found that participants with helicopter parents exhibited traits such as anxiety, dependence, self-consciousness, vulnerability and impulsiveness, compared to their non-hovered-over peers.

Yet Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist and author, says "research supports that when parents become involved in their children's activities the children do better. They seem to enjoy the activity more whether it is college or an after-school event."

Fact Box

Q: What role do parents have in the education process?

A: A big one, but they also need to ensure they don't crowd their children.

She added: "There is a fine line, and the positive effects diminish when parents take over and try to control the activity the child is in."

When it comes to a parents' involvement in school, certainly teachers appreciate an active parent, to a point.

Linda Shalaway, a veteran teacher at Cameron High School, encourages parents to keep in touch with teachers by email. Email is better than phone calls in everyday situations, because "most teachers have much greater access to answering emails than answering phones," she said.

Other "middle ground" tips Shalaway offers parents are to:

Shalaway's list of "Don't" includes:

Rapini added that a child whose battles are constantly fought for him will believe he is incapable of fighting for himself.

"Soon, your child cannot make a decision without asking mom or dad," Rapini said.

One of the most important lessons being taught children in schools and through self-esteem programming in the 21st century is that making mistakes is not only OK, it is vital to the learning process.

Said Rapini: "Kids who grow up anticipating mistakes take more risks, are less fearful and feel more confident about themselves. We all make mistakes; children have so much to learn in a relatively short period of time." She said the family shouldn't always protect the child from making mistakes but can provide a safe, secure environment for mistakes to be made.

"Make sure they can experience their mistakes while being protected in their family. The outside world will never be as forgiving as your own family," Rapini said.

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