The trouble with helicopter parenting

Helicopter parenting won't teach kids to solve their own problems, writes Jennifer Pinarski.

free-range parenting
Isaac and Gillian enjoying the outdoors. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Two years ago, I was with my kids at an out-of-town park. It was an overcast day and only myself and another mom were there, our kids playing wildly on their own. Working together, the kids invented a version of tag where they spun around in circles and then ran around to try and catch each other. It was only a matter of time until two kids collided—my son and her son. The only thing louder than their skulls clunking together was their laughter—my son helped the other boy to his feet and they ran off to resume their game (this time, they had the good sense not to spin).

For the next few minutes, the mom glared daggers at me. Finally, she called for her kids, telling them to get in the car, because it was time to go home “before someone gets hurt.” As she marched her disappointed and bawling kids past me to get back in the car the word “rude” and “sorry” was muttered under her breath and then it clicked—my son didn’t apologize for an accidental bump where no one actually got hurt.

It wasn’t the last time my kids were involved in high-speed active games where they got bumped by other kids, but I did make sure that they said sorry—even if whatever happened wasn’t their fault. As a free-range parent in an increasingly helicopter society, it seemed like the best survival tactic for my social life.

Chantal Panozzo shared a similar story on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, although it was sharing plastic play food (and not playground games) that was the cause of disagreement. In Switzerland, where she lived for the previous 10 years, the disagreement between her daughter and a toddler boy would have been resolved without parental interference she explains:

“If we had been living in Switzerland, the incident would have ended here. But four weeks ago, we had moved ‘home’ to the Chicago area. So this story had another chapter. Because thanks to hovering American parent culture, the La Grange Library food fight was not only between a three-year-old and an 18-month-old. It was also between their mothers, who were right at the table with them.

When my little girl grabbed the sugar back from the boy, the Swiss-trained mother in me considered the incident finished; parents in Switzerland did not interfere with child’s play. But the boy’s mother narrowed her eyes. Clearly, to be a good American mom, I was required to do something.

‘You need to share,’ I told my daughter. ‘Please return the sugar and say you’re sorry.’

A ‘sorry’ had to remedy the situation.” 

Independence and risk assessment are the most oft-cited benefits of free-range parenting, but I think both my story and Panozzo’s situation show another advantage of not helicopter parenting your kids: They learn to resolve spats on their own. I can’t tell you the number of play groups I’ve been to where parents are quick to jump in if two toddlers fight over a toy. Yes, sharing is a skill that kids need to learn, but if parents are always quick to interfere, the only thing kids will learn is that a “sorry” and an intervening grown-up will solve all their problems.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>

10 Comments