Are you a “helicopter” or “lawnmower” parent? Or do you identify as a “free-range” or “slow” parent?
I’d prefer not to be labeled either as a machine or “slow” (my intellect is at least average, thank you very much). Nor do I want to have the same label that’s slapped on the organic chicken breasts at Ingles, though given the above options, I suppose that one best describes my parenting style.
Let’s define these terms. Helicopter parenting is a 21st century term that describes those parents who hover over their children protectively, like, well, helicopters. They rarely let their kids out of sight. This phenomenon also has been called “lawnmower” parenting to describe those who smooth every obstacle out of their kids’ way—whether the kids want them to or not.
This type of parenting springs from fear and paranoia often propagated by, yes, the media. We’re now hyperaware of these rare but sensational dangers to our kids, such as pedophilia. I think, too, it springs from parents seeing our kids as reflections of ourselves and needing them to be productive, successful perfectoids. Yeah, I made up that word.
Thus, the opposite of helicoptering, free-range or slow parenting (just like slow food), refers to parents who try to give their kids more independence—those who step back and let the young ‘uns learn from experience. Free-rangers let their kids ride their bikes around town and disappear for a few hours into the woods to play. The idea is to “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
This movement’s been spearheaded by writer Lenore Skenazy, who has penned a book on free-range kids, and who has been alternately vilified as the world’s worst mom (she let her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone), and praised as a parent who promotes self-reliance.
Temperamentally, while I’m more of a free-ranger than a lawnmower, I’m not as relaxed as Skenazy about giving my offspring independence. I only recently started letting my 11-year-old walk or bike to local shops alone or with friends, although, in truth, she’s one of those kids who could’ve negotiated a complicated subway route with more ease than I could’ve at an early age.
My 8-year-old, on the other hand, is a daydreamer, and I’m more concerned about him inadvertently stepping into traffic than anything else. But I’ve learned that, in his case, experience is a better teacher than talk. I’ve lectured him about street safety for hours, and I’m guessing most of what he’s heard is from my lips sounds like: “Blah, blah, blah, cars. Blah, blah, blah, hospital. Blah, blah, blah, hurt.” However, when he ran into our street in front of a car driven by our neighbor’s grandpa, he was both frightened and properly scolded by someone who was not his parent. After that, he started looking both ways.
I’m not suggesting that you let your kid run into traffic to teach him a lesson, but I’m saying that a little fear, adversity or danger can change behavior a helluva lot quicker than even the most angry parental lecture.
This summer, for the first time, I’m giving my kids more freedom than I have in the past, mostly because summer camps can be pricey. Luckily, both Enviro-spouse and I mostly work from home, so we can be hands-off, but still nearby if someone pokes an eye out. Also, as is often the case, the younger kid gets more freedom earlier because, he’s the second kid. Plus, his big sister’s supposed to be in charge. Get used to it, buddy.
Freedom for my kids doesn’t mean they’re ready for the latchkey lifestyle. Not yet. But they are ready to stay on their own for an hour or so while I run errands or do some work outside the home. And they’re ready to stay for three or four hours at home when Enviro-spouse is ensconced in his home office. According to house rules, they can yell for him if there’s blood, vomit or fire. Otherwise, they have to pretend he’s not there and take care of themselves. Nor are they allowed excessive screen time. They have to entertain themselves or play outside within set boundaries. Oh, and they’re not supposed to kill or maim each other.
Really, at the ages of 11 and 8, my biggest concerns aren’t strangers or accidents or even them getting into stuff they aren’t supposed to get into. My primary worry is that they’ll get into a sibling battle and injure each other. (Although I am thinking that a locked drawer might be a good idea—for hiding prescription drugs, “marital aids,” and such. Though I wonder if locking something makes it more enticing. My grandfather used to lock the liquor “closet” at his house, and my cousins and I spent hours searching for the key. We usually found it).
So we’ll see how my parental balancing act goes this summer. I’ve told my kids that good behavior earns them more freedom, while bad equals more of mommy looking over their shoulders. Though I’m pretty sure I don’t have the energy to be a helicopter anyway.