Last summer, my son Sam was turning two and delirious with new superpowers. At the playground he was like an overeager puppy: he’d tear around, climb the big kid slide, jump screeching into the splash pad and, when he wasn’t eating it, bury himself in sand. I was interviewing for a new job, so I had one eye on him, noting if he was in mortal danger, and the other checking my phone for LinkedIn notifications. One day, another dad stopped me and said I really should keep my boy under better control because he was setting a bad example.
Every playground has two basic cliques: good parents and bad parents. If you’re good, you’re hyper-vigilant about safety, humblebrag about your homemade non-GMO flatbread, provide impromptu sermons on the latest studies about screen time evils, and manage to turn every play activity into a civics lesson. The good ones practice enlightened parenting (parents and kids are in a partnership, not a hierarchy) or RIE (a trendy Californian model that bans toys) or they’re simply (but it’s never simple!) classic helicopter parents.
Bad parents, on the other hand, are self-absorbed and neglectful. They’re careless: they feed their kids industrial farmed blueberries, let them spend mindless hours staring at an iPad, and dress them in poly-blend T-shirts branded with a certain popular cartoon with safety-minded talking dogs. (There’s a definite class divide at work here: good parents are typically wealthier, upwardly mobile and able to afford what’s organic, handmade, artisanal.)
I’d fallen into the bad parent clique. Many of us end up here by default, not by choice. Keeping up with good parents is exhausting—worse than sleepless nights with a teething kid. My child-rearing borrows from the late ‘70s and early ’80s, when my mom and dad raised me. Compared to today’s good parenting rules, they practiced a form of benign neglect. For them, there was no such thing as a parenting style—parenting just happened.
My first instinct when that dad chastised me in the park was to apologize—until I realized I had no reason to be ashamed. My kid isn’t a hitter or a biter, and despite his daredevil routines, he carefully avoids bonking into other kids. I rolled my eyes at the park dad, said I didn’t realize toddlers succumbed so easily to peer pressure and dragged Sam in the opposite direction.
There are good reasons to embrace bad parenting. Here’s why:
When I think back to my childhood, I’m amazed how I didn’t maim or kill myself. Every weekend, from the moment I was old enough to tell time on my Casio watch, my parents would send me outside and shut the door. I’d track down friends in the park or in the remains of a nearby cancelled suburb. Our parents had no idea where we were (no GPS trackers) and trusted us to make it home eventually, starved after hours of wild activity. They didn’t want to know that we were swinging from the branches of willow trees, trudging through creeks swollen with spring melt, discovering mouldy stacks of vintage Playboy magazines hidden in a bush, and riding our pint-size BMX bikes to far-off convenience stores to collect Garbage Pail Kids cards.
Sam isn’t yet ready to venture out on his own, but in a few years he will be. And by letting him, I’ll risk being accused of neglect. Sure, today’s world seems so much more terrifying if you’re going by the number of serial killer series on Netflix or believe every border is in need of a 20-foot wall. But we shouldn’t overreact: the world is in fact safer than it has ever been, in no small part because crime has been falling for decades. The kids of the ’70s didn’t get into serious trouble because we were deeply aware that our parents had given us the responsibility to keep each other alive. We were left to explore the world—instead of waiting for our parents to make our decisions for us. What’s stopping us from allowing our kids today to build up that same independence now?
For the first couple weeks of daycare, Sam would wail when I dropped him off inside the play yard gate. His “Daddyyyyyyyyy” crushed my heart—we’d never been apart for so many hours before, and I wanted to take him back and hold him tight. But I resisted, and made a point of consistently responding to his tears with a quick, zero-drama goodbye. Then, one morning, a switch inside him was flicked and, upon entering the gate, he raced away from me to play with the other toddlers. No tears. He didn’t need me anymore—it was crushing in an entirely different way, but I got over it.
One of the many reasons to avoid helicopter parenting: it saps all your strength and makes you semi- or fully delusional. When you spend all your time helicoptering—there’s only one speed, it’s all or nothing—you have no time left for yourself, and a warped perspective about what your kid needs to build his or her confidence. It’ll never happen if you can’t leave their side. One ugly effect of this is you, the parent, start to lose your own sense of who you are. Your entire life becomes consumed with hovering over this little tyrant. Your identity starts to blur with your kid, and your kid inevitably doesn’t know what it’s like to not have you there approving his or her every eye-blink. And it ruins their emotional health: a 2018 study published in Developmental Psychology found that kids with helicopter parents are less able to regulate their behaviour or confidently negotiate challenges in the real world.
There are few events as painful to me as preschooler birthday parties. Now that my cohort is thick with kids, the past couple years has been filled with them. The conversation among the attending parents inevitably turns to what they’ve signed them up for. It goes beyond the usual soccer and swim lessons to early math tutorials, third-language classes, music intensives, ski classes, and March break coding boot camp. These parents are plainly terrified of two things: that their kids will be at a disadvantage if he or she misses out on any opportunities, and that any gaps in their daily schedule is a sign of terrible parenting, and only invites excessive screen time. When did unstructured time become wasted time? So far, I’ve signed Sam up for exactly one class: a weekly singalong program, which gave him another excuse to jiggle and bang castanets. The rest of our time easily gets filled with grandparent visits, grocery runs and, the best of all types of activities, spontaneous fun. He loves random trips to the small city zoo nearby with its llamas, peacocks and impressively smelly bison. He gets a kick out of the fish tank at the supermarket. Right now, what he prefers most is to stay home and smush Play Doh into our heating vents. What I know for sure: he’ll be well prepared for the world, especially when he’s required to identify strange bovine odours.
When Sam was just six months old, we were cuddling on the sofa in our family room one rainy weekend, watching a Bob’s Burgers marathon. I realized he wasn’t just playing with his toes and was actually watching it, too, when he laughed every time Louise, the daughter who wears the bunny ear hat, appeared. Soon he started to wiggle and dance in my lap whenever the bouncy theme song came on. I was torn between being proud of this milestone and guilt for letting him anywhere near a TV.
“Screen time” is the most paralyzing parental challenge: there’s contradictory information about how much is too much, or if you should allow it at all below a certain age. This past December, a group of researchers from the University of Guelph published a study that followed children between the ages of 1.5 and 5, and found that the more parents use screens, the more their kids do. Which sounds like an obvious finding, but the hazards make me queasy. A 2017 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society found that screen exposure makes kids more sedentary and more likely to become obese. It impairs short term memory, math and language skills, and psychosocial health. They recommend absolutely zero screen time for kids under two—gulp.
Paediatricians make you feel that using screens this way, and as a reward (implicit or overt), turns your kid into an antisocial idiot and definitively makes you a bad parent. But what they don’t admit is that almost every parent resorts, to some degree, to using screens to control a kid's behaviour (especially on plane trips, any car ride of more than 10 minutes, at the dentist, in line at the supermarket—basically everywhere, especially when they’re toddlers). They also ignore the reality that screens are unavoidable today. They’re part of every facet of our lives, and there’s a real hypocrisy in a parent who keeps screens away from his kid but is himself staring at one every other minute (to check LinkedIn notifications or otherwise).
What’s more, not every kid is going to become a screen addict. I’ve noticed that in my circle, the parents who severely limit screen time transform screens into greater temptations—the kids obsess over it like Gollum over his ring. With Sam, I’ve been consistently laissez faire. At two and a half he’d figured out his way around the Netflix menu, and has gravitated to BBC nature doc series, especially if they involve whales, and anything with Wallace and Gromit. But if we’re watching from the parents’ menu, or if the TV is off, he’ll do his own thing (Play Doh and vents, mostly). The less we obsess about screen time, the less we fear it, the less he seems to care for it.
Good parents don’t seem to be able to decide if their kids should be coddled and infantilized (the helicoptering instinct) or treated as mini-adults, ready for sophisticated conversations about emotions and playground politics. They never treat them as kids who just want to be kids. After all, this is their one window in life when it should be OK to be irrational, silly, spontaneous and absolutely nothing like a boring adult.
The saddest story I read this year was about a kindergarten class in PEI in which the students are required to perform a morning routine of core strength exercises—planks, tossing balls, etc. The teachers instituted this because they’d noticed the kids had poor motor skills, which they attribute to not enough outdoor play. In other words, their well-intentioned parents have kept them inside, safe from imaginary dangers, and stunted their growth. I see it as my job to enforce some basic rules (don’t put yourself in danger, eat three meals a day plus snacks and more snacks), but other than that the best a parent can do is get out of the way. It’s time to set the kids free.
This article was originally published online in March 2019.