In Defense of Helicopter Parenting

Four months ago, after traveling home from supper with friends only to witness a near-fatality involving two children, I wrote an article– the title of which was “Why I am Glad to be a Helicopter Parent”. In the article, I wrote shamelessly about being a helicopter parent as it concerned the issue at hand- safety of children on roadways where traffic can be found.

Fast forward to this week in which two children ten and under were picked up by police officers walking home from a park in Maryland. Their parents defend the children’s freedom to travel without a parent’s protective watch, calling it ‘free-range’ parenting.

As a result of this latest story on parenting extremes, I have given some thought to my strong feelings about my own parenting with a protective stance towards safety on the road, as well as why others feel differently about the issue. And because of this, I thought I might weigh in on the issue again, giving a bit of a defense for parents, like myself, who are more prone to be protective- and thus deemed to be helicopter parents.

In my own situation, I am a helicopter parent in this issue because of my history. In my extended family, three aunts were in serious, life-altering car accidents- killing one and leaving the other two with paralysis. Add to this, three years ago, my own children were involved in a car accident due to teenage drivers not paying close enough attention to the roads. Add to this, on our road alone, there have been three tragic car accidents since I have lived here, one of which involved two walkers being hit and killed. And if this were not enough, at the end of our driveway is a small culvert. I can call up five accidents to mind that have occurred in that spot since my son was born. And that is just a quick estimate.

That area of which I speak is potentially where my children play- and certainly an area that we as a family have walked together many, many times over the years. I am just saying- who could ever say that an accident wouldn’t occur during one of those times. I err on the side of caution.

Car accidents happen everywhere and if we lived our life in fear of them occurring, we’d never go anywhere. However, for the precise reason that car accidents do happen- and some of these accidents occur in certain highly-susceptible areas (like the end of our road where the Yield sign is ignored), then parents need to act defensively. This is an issue where parents must make a risk-assessment and ask the question: can I take a risk by letting my child have freedom to travel roadways alone or is the risk too high based on the probability that something might go wrong?

This is not about NOT trusting your child in this situation- and everything about having very little trust in the driving public.

Secondly, I am a helicopter parent in regards to safety issues. I am NOT a helicopter parent in regards to everything the Children are involved in as kids. I know I should be more vigilant about checking their i-pods and social media sites- but I am not. I should be better at applying sunscreen in the summer- I haven’t always been on top of my game in that respect, so I am not a helicopter parent there either. And I give my children a fair bit of lenience with regards to freedom in our home. The latter, primarily because I have deemed this home a safe place- what my children do with their time here is largely up to them, give or take. It is understood that the children can make choices about how they spend their free time, and I leave things like homework largely up to them to figure out (unless it is something requiring my attention).

This is not to say I never check i-pods, never apply sunscreen and never get involved in homework- I do. I just wouldn’t take a strong stand of labeling myself a helicopter parent in these issues. Which is to say: every parent finds themselves at one time or another- on a continuum. Free-range might be at one end of the spectrum and helicopter parenting at the other or perhaps disciplinarian at one end and lenient at the other. There are no end to the ways in which parents label themselves, no end to the ways in which we can be divided.

So helicopter parent today might be free-range tomorrow depending on the issue.

With regards to the two parents in Maryland- I really do not feel strongly one way or the other about their parenting ‘feelings’ on letting children roam free and unattended. I am sure there are a number of reasons for why they feel less-protective about safety than I do- many reasons of which would take time and effort to discover. The feelings they have are personal to them. However, the minute they let their children out on the street- it is no longer just them involved in the scenario- it is now about the children and the world at large. And in my experience, at least when children are driving in a car with me, I know the exquisite value of the passengers- which is more than I can say for some drivers who give not a thought to anyone except themselves.

So to let children walk unattended or not? That is the question. To this I say, if we are willing to take that risk, we gamble a lot. But we know as parents intuitively when it is a risk we can wager on.

As for me- at this point in the game, it’s just not a lottery I am willing to play.

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For All The Nights I’m Not…

A very thoughtful reader wrote me a comment for my helicopter parenting article which made me think once again: the minute we think we know SOMETHING, we come to realize we don’t know anything.

If you haven’t read the article, I write about a near miss for two children on bikes, a story in which I describe myself as a bit of a helicopter parent when it comes to some aspects of our children’s upbringing.  However, that is not me ALL of the time.  I wouldn’t have you to believe I am a saint or some kind of perfect mother.  So just for the record, for all the other nights I am not the helicopter parent, here’s what I’ve been known to be:

Monday evening, September 29th, 2014:

In our house, if Husband is the voice of reason, I am the voice of hysteria.

It is 6:00 p.m., and I am simultaneously cleaning up from supper, emptying the dishwasher and refereeing children’s disputes/meltdowns. Apparently, there is not enough technological bandwidth power to suitably fire up the Save Our Sanity effort in our house tonight (i.e. the computers are not working and too many people are trying to access the limited supply.) All this while I am having my own epic meltdown.

In fact, mine is ten times worse than anyone else’s about five minutes in. If there was a club of Hysterical People Anonymous, I would be president RIGHT NOW. If there were a meeting of that club anywhere- ANYWHERE- within a 500 mile radius right now, I would gladly vacate the premises and walk barefoot to that meeting on a road of hot volcanic gravel, just to escape the fresh torture that is our after-supper witching hour sans Husband.

Ah supper hour. How I oft despise thee!

If there were a meal I would gratefully skip, it would be supper. I know, I know I KNOW- there are so many idyllic ideals surrounding this mealtime that I have read about, pondered upon and dreamed about in my sleep. But PEOPLE. Suppertime was actually made for the simple purpose of tormenting and afflicting otherwise exhausted mothers so that they could quickly lose their minds. Zero to sixty, baby. Honest, cross my heart- this is the really, truly, truthiest truth. I wouldn’t lie.

But just to be sure, let’s play a fun game. True or false… Supper time is a peaceful, relaxing hour when all is well in the world (and children eat all their food and then empty the dishwasher). Ding, ding, ding: FALSE!!!!!! Suppertime is actually an hour of psychosis when mothers (and quite possibly at times FATHERS) haven’t quite lost all their marbles in the long and endless battle to get their kids to come to the supper table- because that’s what supper is for. To finish them off and kill them slowly. Supper is quite simply for the birds. Literally. Or the cats. I ended up giving the cats two platefuls tonight. The birds got some crusts earlier on today. Whatevs.

Husband, bless his heart, (while all this chaos is underway), is driving blissfully unaware in a van without children (AND HOW DID THIS PUZZLING REALITY HAPPEN???), oblivious to his wife’s complete and utter loss of her mental faculties. Ignorance is bliss they say. I’ll fix that. Luckily, he took the cell phone so he will soon be in the loop regarding all things psychotic that his wife has been fully aware of for the exactly two point three seconds that she has LOST HER FLIPPIN’MIND.
I love me some speed dial.

He answers me because he has to. We’ve got BlueTooth- no excuses. It must feel good to say, “Hunny, I am in Summerside right now…what do you want me to do?” when your wife is about ready to crawl through the phone wires. All I have to say is this: thank goodness for that forty-five minute stretch of highway. It gave Someone enough time to take a Sober Second breath before nailing the last spike into her own coffin.

All crazy things must come to an eventual, frantic end. So I eventually calmed down. What goes up must come down. I met Husband coming in the driveway as I was on my way out, (where upon I was sidetracked into investigating the back of the truck where Children had left a bunch of stuff they forgot to take in the house which I found and grumpily carted in myself). I guess the steam must have still been flying out my ears because he cleared a wide berth for me as I marched out the driveway and up the road.

This is my version of running away from home. And you have no idea how many times the after supper walk has saved our marriage. Thirty minutes of sweet, sweet solitude that brings Mother Dearest back to her senses, restores her sense of inner calm and reminds her of all she has and all her family means to her.

It’s all good- and dare I say, even worth it. Even if that means I have to go through it all again tomorrow night.

So, for all the nights I am a helicopter parent, I breathe a prayer of thanks.  And for all the nights I’m not, I’m thankful too.  Every life needs a state of balance in it to remind us of our fragility- to remind us of our humanity.  So for tonight, I will say this prayer of serenity…

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

…because that’s all we can be accountable for in a given day.

On Helicopter Parenting

I am paying a bill for quesadillas and Greek salad. Along with the ‘so-worth-it’ charges for that sweet slice of heavenly bliss in the form of luscious raspberry pie. It is 6:00 in the evening, and I think to myself, as I close the restaurant door behind me- of all I have to do, all I have waiting for me at home. This supper with two friends was a welcome reprieve from the busyness of my life. From the hectic chaos that is our home at suppertime.  But my thoughts are now on home and those precious five that await me.

I head out toward my van and make my way toward the corner, taking a right onto the main street in our little town. I drive about two minutes down the road when I happen to see on the left two young bikers waiting to cross the road. Mentally, I judge them to be about my two youngest daughter’s ages while I simultaneously wonder to myself why they are out on their own without a parent. As I pass by, I can see the youngest of the two starting to move out into the street. I watch as he does indeed leave the curb and then makes his way onto the street. I am just passing by as he is doing this, so I do not immediately notice that a truck directly behind me is heading straight into his path.  All I am thinking is about is the relief that this child is still waiting by the curbside. The Young Biker doesn’t seem to be noticing a whole lot and appears to fail to notice this detail of the oncoming truck as well. As I move ahead, I continue to watch in my side-view mirror this oblivious child- hoping beyond hope that he will stop and do what I have taught my children and still reinforce almost every time we ride bikes together: to look both ways and do so TWICE before crossing. He does neither. And I am horrified to see that not only is he continuing to move into the busy street, but furthermore that the truck which was approaching is nearly upon him. And then, I see it. A squeal of tires and a child- nearly sideswiped. The little boy is just in front of the truck which has slammed on its brakes and come to a sudden and diagonal stop in the middle of the road.

“Oh Jesus, Jesus…” I start to pray. I watch helplessly as the truck remains motionless for what seems like an eternity as the boy crosses over to the other side. Narrowly missing what he might never fully understand could have been a fatal end. And I wonder what private hell that truck driver has just missed enduring as well. What panic he is experiencing even at this moment, having just avoided the most tragic of possibilities.

This one moment in many moments: it is a defining one. A make or break point in time where eternity pauses for the briefest of seconds to take stock and then breathe again. Do we ever fully understand how much we’ve been given?  Does it make any difference at all?

As a mother, I have had some moments lately. Some which have been challenging and trying, to say the least. We are navigating the waters of adolescence, the waters of sibling rivalry, the waters of struggles for independence and its accompanying challenging arguments. We are constantly teaching and mentoring and coaching and loving.  Constantly called on to exercise limited and short-supplied patience.  And at times, we might come across as helicopter parents: maybe to our off-spring and maybe to others looking in. But these children: they are all we’ve got. They are our one shot at this parenting gig. We are never going to get to do this over again; these four- they’re all we’ve got. And whether or not it is easy to stay the course, hanging in there when life gets tough and frustrating is not the point. This is our life. These are our kids. And we have no other alternative than to give them our very best.

Our hearts demand this.  This is the path we’re on.

So when I see children out on a busy street without a parent to keep a watchful eye- protecting and mentoring and modelling and guiding children in safe bike practices, I think of my own four who sometimes find their old mom a little over-bearing. And I think- “thank Heavens you’ve got a mom like that. She might be annoying and embarrassing and too involved, but her heart is in the right place. And she loves you very much”; and this I know for sure: she would travel for her kids to the sky and beyond if that was needed.

Maybe that’s why they call it helicopter parenting.

Trigger warnings and Play

Warning: the contents of this article might be offensive to some. In that, it might make you conjure up images of snot, mucous, throw-up, broken arms and the like. Consider yourself trigger warned.

Last weekend’s Globe and Mail had an article in its Focus section about trigger alerts. Essentially, trigger alerts are advance warnings that might alert one to potentially harmful, anxiety-inducing, adverse information found in course material, books, public and private settings and environments, writing and other venues of transmitting influential stuff that might need censoring.

In other words, someone could be bothered at the very least- offended at the most, by what they encounter.

According to the article, university professors are being asked to provide trigger warnings in advance of their course readings- to the extreme that any sort of ill-affect, including panic attacks and anxiety disorders, might be provoked by the influence of the potential literature, and could thus be avoided through use of such an advance cautioning system. That is, through using a trigger warning so as to alert.

Essentially, trigger warnings are kind of like car horns: they jar you so that you pay close attention. Or kind of like the jarring bellow of a teacher just before her student runs in front of the swing-set. You get the idea.

The thought of which gave me pause to consider the various trigger warnings that I should offer to all those incoming students of mine who are going to be attending my upcoming K classes in the fall. The four year-olds, that is. If I was to provide a trigger warning for them, here’s what it would look like:

Be aware, Prospective Clients of the Public School System. Entering the educational system and thus attending kindergarten classes might bring on the following adverse, unpleasant affects:

1. Sickness, after you come into contact with every cold and flu virus known to humankind, which incidentally must FIRST cross the threshold of the school doorways before filtering out into the world at large.
2. Dirty, filthy clothing, as you wear said ‘virus’ proudly like a badge (because I can guarantee: you will be wiping your nose all over those super-adorable little shirts and dresses that looked spick and span when you left home in the morning but look like a compost dispenser by the end of the day).
3. All manner of cuts and bruises, as you manage to find every dangerous corner, table, wall and other sharp object or the like inside every classroom, hallway, music room, gym and secretary’s office within the school. And yes, quite possibly even the bus.
4. All manner of broken body parts, (yes again, I said that right), as you experiment with gravity on the outdoor playground equipment. Or school banister railings.
5. Writer’s cramp, as you are reminded for the bazillionth time to hold your pencil with proper, standardized pencil grip.
6. Discriminating taste buds, as you realize halfway through the month of September that you still have twelve years ahead of you eating Flakes of Ham sandwiches.
7. Joy at discovering that mom has no idea what happens to said ‘sandwich’ when Teacher turns her head to read out the lunch menu. For that matter, neither does Teacher.
8. Cold, wet feet, upon discovering that playing soccer in mud puddles a foot deep causes one’s clothing from the hip down to become completely soaked. And then some.
9. A propensity to needing bandages, as you discover that sticky, adhesive substances are quite fun to apply to the body. And then rip off two seconds later.
10. A paranoid sense of personal space as your teacher patiently explains to you why standing one cm from a person’s mouth is not far enough away.

These are merely the top ten. I could write more. So much, much more.

The author of the Globe article goes on to cite a recent Atlantic Monthly critiqueon the topic of micromanaged kids and their helicopter parents. And he does so as to say the following: “Kids are no longer left alone to find their way, invent spontaneous and sometimes risky forms of play, to confront and overcome unknowns, to do things themselves, and to fall, fail and then get back up again.”

To which I say, au contraire. Where there is a will, there is always a way.

I was on outdoor duty Friday, and I can assure this good man: children are still testing the waters of safety, running towards the road, hiding beneath trees, escaping the confines of their boundaries, sitting on the top of the monkey bars, sliding down the slide backwards, hitting one another over the head with pinecones, branches and possibly rocks (oh my nerves) and banging into each other when playing and running.

Falling down. And then getting back up again.

And interestingly, some of these kids do have helicopter parents.

While I see that there is still a propensity towards anxiety in children of helicopter parents, by and large, most kids are running around full-tilt on the playground, as if their life depended on it. And loving every, single minute of it.

‘Cause that’s their job. It’s what they have to do.

At least, it is for the healthy, happy P.E. Island kids I know and teach.