A Hovering Mother Reconsiders

Hi Readers: I really enjoyed this Boston Magazine story, by Katherine Ozment. Here’s a snippet from this mom of 2:

In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.

The rest of the article is her talking to people who believe in the value of independence and play (a lot of the folks I like talking to, too), and realizing that unsupervised time is at least as valuable to kids as the super-saturated parent time she had been bathing them in. Not that the answer is to neglect our kids. (Well, maybe a little.) But anyway: giving them space is not neglect.

My favorite anecdote came from her chat with Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd who —

… tells a story about how, years ago, his 11-year-old daughter and several of her friends were planning an overnight campout with some younger neighborhood kids in his backyard. Before the big night, the parents of the younger kids began scouring his lawn for nails and shards of glass. “It just seemed like, Whoa, what is going on with this anxiety?” Weissbourd recalls. The problem wasn’t just the parental anxiety itself — it was how it was actually reshaping the experience for those kids: “I felt like these 10- and 11-year-old girls were so conscientious and these parents came and undermined them.”

Shards of glass they were looking for? What a perfect example of Worst-First thinking: Gee, it’s a suburban lawn. What terror could lurk there?

Great article, great stories, great revelation. In short: Great reading! — L.

Why I’m Not Cheering the “Helicopter Parents Have Neurotic Kids” Study

Hi Readers! A bunch of you have forwarded this story, from livescience.com, that I’ve been mulling for days:

‘Helicopter’ Parents Have Neurotic Kids, Study Suggests

The piece is about a study of 300 college freshmen that found the students who are “dependent, neurotic and less open,” may have their over-involved, over-worried, helicopter parents to thank for crippling them. It even went on to say that  “in non-helicoptered students who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents, so-called ‘free rangers,’ the effects were reversed.” [Boldface, mine.]

So here’s our movement, being scientifically legitimized, and even called by its rightful name — the one coined right here! So why am I not jumping up and down and shouting, “Told ya so!”? Two reasons:

First, the story includes three of the questions that were asked of the students to determine if their parents were the “helicopter” type.

Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,” “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,” and “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

By those criteria, I pretty much qualify as a helicopter mom. I have spoken to my son’s school when he was having problems. (As recently as  yesterday!) And I am pretty sure that if and when, God willing, we drop our kids off at college, we will help them unpack and then stay the night in a nearby hotel before bidding them goodbye in the morning. Just like my parents did when they dropped me off at school. What’s the big deal?

As for constant contact, I’m not sure how often we’ll call back and forth, but I just can’t see that as a black and white, helicopter vs. free-range issue. In my book I do suggest leaving your cell phone at home some times, so your kids can’t call and ask you to solve all their problems or make all their decisions — e.g., “Can I have a snack before I start my homework?” But if they call from college every couple of days to say hi, is that fatal to their characters or damning of ours? I don’t think so. Which brings me to —

Point #2: Who says it is the parents and only the parents who shape a child’s entire personality and outlook on life? That’s the very same belief — parents as Michelangelo, kids as clay — that motivates helicopter parents in the first place. If you really see your child as yours and yours alone to create or destroy, naturally you are going to worry about optimizing every single moment. That’s a big burden.  Every parental choice looms large because it is seen through the lens of MAKING or BREAKING the child. One of the cardinal rules in my book is to let go of the idea we CAN control  everything about our kids. As if there’s no such thing as luck, genes, other relatives, teachers, siblings, the neighborhood, quirks and a million other influences.

A study like this — a study like so many that academia seems to churn out on a daily basis, pointing fingers and purporting to be able to boil down an entire person to how good or bad a job his parents did raising him — is so  simplistic as to be meaningless.

Which is not to say I still don’t believe wholeheartedly in the idea of giving our kids more freedom and responsibility and hovering less. I do think it is great for them — and great for us. But we are not the only influence on our children, and one of the reasons parents are being driven so CRAZY these days is because everyone seems ready to blame us for any problem our kids ever evidence or endure.

Yes, it’s nice to see Free-Range Kids endorsed in the parenting-obsessed media. It’s too bad the parenting-obsessed media is still part of the problem.   — Lenore