On (Over/Helicopter/Judgements of) Parenting These Days

Earlier today, I took the kids to the pool where the rules are so insanely many that I find it depressing. You cannot even approach a diving board until the previous diver is back out of the pool. You cannot swim under lane ropes. You cannot skip. You must get out for a safety break every 45 minutes. You cannot wear goggles on the water slide or diving board. And on and on. My god, how did my sister and I make it out of our childhood community pool alive??

While at the pool, I took a couple minutes during one infernal break to read a story shared on Facebook by a good friend. Written by an acquaintance of mine, it relayed the true tale of a mother leaving her 8- and 9-year-old kids at home alone while she ran out to pick up some take-out food. The family was staying in a Delaware beach vacation rental, and it appears that their dogs ran outside and the children followed in order to retrieve their pets.

While outside, the dogs ran into the street in front of a car. The driver stopped and ended up asking the kids where their mother was. “Out getting food,” they replied.

The driver called the police, and the mother “was arrested, charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of her children, and released on $500 unsecured bail.”

There are so many things wrong with this that I remain furious many hours after first reading this story. Sadly, it’s not remotely the first time I’ve heard of parents –actually, it’s almost always the mother- being arrested for leaving their children alone for some period of time.

Remember the single mother who worked at McDonald’s and let her 9-year-old daughter play in the nearby park while she worked her shift because she had no childcare alternative? Their house was a six-minute walk away and the girl had a key and a cellphone. The mother was arrested and jailed, and her daughter was remanded to state custody.

Recall the mother who left her 4-year-old playing on an iPad in the car on a cool day while she ran into a store quickly? A stranger photographed her license plate, called the police to report her, and she was charged with a crime. She spent a full year dealing with the after-effects.

Remember the Maryland parents who, after practicing the walk and all safety instructions, let their 6- and 10-year-old kids walk to a local park alone? People called Child Protective Services on them, and the police coerced the children into a patrol car and held them for three hours before telling their parents where the kids were. They were later reported again and are terrified to let their children do anything remotely independently. They were called Free Range as if it were worse than being a cannibalistic, satanist puppy killer.

Do you know what I think the real crimes are?

1.     Traumatizing children and parents unnecessarily. Some parents need to be called on by strangers, by the police, by CPS, but do you know who doesn’t? People who trust their children and have thought about things and made the decision to let them play outside unattended, to walk to and play in a park. People who trust their children and leave them home while running out for some mealtime food or to drop the pet at the vet or to attend an exercise class. People who trust their children and want to increasingly allow them independent moments in which they can show and prove their responsibility.

2.     Teaching children that they are incapable of keeping themselves safe and so must rely on their parents/mother to be with them all the time. Not only does this suggest to children that terrifying horrors are everywhere, around every corner but also that they are absolutely powerless without a parent around. Forget personal strength and ability. Forget any effort to learn independent problem solving and agency and resiliency. Forget feeling safe in the world.

3.     Demonizing parents/mothers who reject the belief that the only way to be a good mother is to be on call and at your children’s sides all day long. I know many good mothers with many different philosophies about time spent with their children. Having disparate beliefs about how to be a good parent should be OK. And that’s not being relativistic. There are some terrible-ass parents out there, people who should NOT be parents. But most of us are doing our bests, and constant judgment from others, from everything from nursing to thumb sucking to when a kid reads or is potty-trained to what he wears or what she eats, helps nothing. Not least our children.

4.     Not supporting lower-income mothers enough with good and safe subsidized childcare. What are they to do if they will lose their jobs if they don’t show up, can’t support their families if they don’t work, but rarely or never have childcare? That is further demonization of non-stay-at-home mothers and of poor people. What does such lack of support teach our kids about how mothers are valued and which ones are more valued?

Don’t we see how too much of these behaviors actually infantilize our kids? Don’t we see how this excessive helicoptering is playing out?

The parents who call teachers and principals and other parents every single time their kid has a bad day on the playground? They’re not helping their children understand the real world. They’re not helping their children figure out coping strategies, and what a real friend is, and how to stand up for themselves. Just like not all adults are nice, not all kids are nice. That is nothing more than fact.

Those parents who do their kid’s homework? They’re not teaching their children anything but laziness. Good luck in college, kiddos. Oh but wait, maybe you can still call upon your parent to help (we’ve all heard of the parents who get apartments in the same town as is their child’s college. Just in case.) Do we really want to teach this sort of work ethic? No! Hard work is a critical skill and should be something we expect and support. We cannot stand in the way of our kids working hard simply because we care for them. Precisely because we love them is why we should let them fail, learn from failure, succeed, learn from success, and work hard.

Read: Former Stanford Dean Explains Why Helicopter Parenting Is Ruining a Generation of Children

Those parents who swoop in to fix everything? They’re not teaching any resilience whatsoever. What these parents are teaching is that their children can’t really cut the umbilical cord. They shouldn’t because then what would they do? Rely on themselves? Egads! Do we want to undermine our children’s sense of agency? Their trust in themselves? No!

It’s like the older our kids get, the more we baby and coddle them. We pressure little kids to be reading at 5 and mastering an instrument or sport by 10 and we don’t let them do anything that doesn’t have a “point,” like simply walk to the park and play with sticks because those things are entirely too dangerous, don’t get you into Best College, and we’re learning that we’ll probably get arrested, or at least reported, for being so negligent.

But then we’re surprised that our children are anxious? That they can’t figure out how to live on their own? That they surround themselves with people who think just like they do instead of folks with a diversity of beliefs and ways of thinking? 

This is not a good way forward, y’all. I beseech this country to calm down, chill out, try to worry a bit less, and let our children grow up. They are so capable and cool, and most of them really will be fine.

Teach them about safe sex, and the perils of smoking, and that they must NEVER drink and drive or even text and drive. Teach them about being part of a community and looking out for each other with smart trust and love. Teach them how to respect, love, and stand up for themselves. Show them that they can work hard and accomplish great things, that you will support them and love them but you won't strip them of agency or the hard times during which they'll learn about grit and work and what success from failure feels like. Show them how to ask for help when they need it and how they can also dig deep and find strength within. Help them become the kind of adults you'd want to know and work with and love.

Another very valuable article: Why Do We Judge Parents For Putting Kids at Perceived But Unreal Risk?