Decommissioning the Parental Helicopter, by Rebekah Sell
...I never wanted to be a helicopter parent, but society told me to.
Andy and I have four children, ages 5 to 11. When I read that article [The Fragile Generation], I realized we had given our kids only a fraction of the freedoms we enjoyed as children of the '80's and '90's. As you know, I grew up on a working dairy farm, miles from town, but spent most of my days unsupervised, wandering all over our 100 acres (which included cropland, pastures inhabited with cattle, woods with wildlife and direct access to a river). Yes, I got into scrapes and there were a handful of times my folks couldn't find me when they needed me. But for the most part, I was thought capable of taking care of myself. By the time I was my eldest child's age, I was riding my bike up and down our county highway to visit school friends, sometimes biking for a mile or more to get to their own farm or home.
Andy lived in the country as well, but on a sort of "looping" road, with several other homes. He said he spent much of his time outside with all the neighborhood kids, going from yard to yard and playing massive games of War, Hide and Seek, and just riding their bikes in the loop for hours. Once he was a little older, he walked along the active train tracks as a short cut to town, where he could visit his friends in the little village near his home.
Wasn't your childhood pretty similar?
We have an eleven-year-old daughter and we have never let her ride her bike on the road, even though we live across the street from the dairy farm I grew up on! The same road, the same traffic count, with some of her school friends living less than a mile away.
I had to sit back and scratch my head. Why was I safe in my parents' eyes and she is not? Then there's my nine-year-old son who wants to swim in our pond at the end of our property by himself. It's out of eye-sight of the house, a solid eighth-mile away, and we won't let him go near it without a life vest on and a similarly-life-vested buddy. Never mind the fact that he's passed all his swim lessons since he was 4 and most of the pond is at a depth he can touch.
The first time I let my daughter walk several blocks from the museum I was working at, to the library to check out a book on her own, she was so excited and at the same time, fearful. I encouraged and even pushed her a little. When she returned, a saw a new type of self-confidence building in her mind.
I took a risk letting her do that, yes. Every single thing could be a risk, if you want to think of the world that way. But what a miserable way to live! Yet, as I wake up to let my children stretch with a little freedom, I'm seeing its not just internal sources that make it difficult. Society at large has been trained to see a child under a certain age out by themselves as being in grave danger.
Consider this experience I had a two years ago:
I took my oldest son to the dentist's office in our small town when he was 7. I checked him in, then realized I forgot my phone at home (a 20 minute drive round trip). Since I was expecting an important call which I could not miss, I instructed him to go back with the hygienist when they called him and that I'd return soon. He was excited to be trusted by me, and I left the office feeling no worries about his well-being. After retrieving my phone at home, I saw I had two angry messages from the dentist office themselves, reprimanding me for leaving a minor without supervision. I remarked when I returned that I saw kids going in and out of the local library without adults all the time. They angrily (yes, they were very upset with me) stated that their policy was no child under 17 could be unsupervised in their office. Yikes. I complied and we went on with the appointment.
Later I began thinking through their policy. This meant that even though there were no less than three adults behind the receptionist desk, with the entire waiting room in full view, my son was considered "unsupervised." Did they truly think that another adult would come into that room looking for a child to kidnap? And let's just say that did happen even though it's a statistical improbability. Did they think this boy would walk away with a stranger without a fight? That none of those three adults, plus others sitting in the waiting area, would do nothing to protect him? Additionally, this policy also means that a teenager, able to drive their own car and hold down a paying job, would have to go home and grab Mom, Dad or Grandma in order to show up at this particular office for a routine cleaning. I mean, doesn't that sound ridiculous? It's not just ridiculous; it tells me that they think kids as old as 17 cannot be trusted to make appropriate decisions.
The train of thought brought me to the similarly ridiculous realization that these same kids who have not been trusted with any sort of responsibility outside the home will suddenly, on the day they turn 18, become an adult, capable of making solid choices and protecting themselves from all the would-be creeps out there?
Not likely. This is where the "protect them at all costs" thinking breaks down. How can a child that has been protected from everything uncomfortable, icky, scary, possibly gain all those life skills overnight?
What a scary world we are letting them out into! They have absolutely no way to cope with the stresses of what actually happens to adults. The role of parents is to protect, yes, but to gradually acclimate the kids to the way things truly are. Unable to resolve conflicts, deal with uncomfortable social situations, with no "common sense," these 18, 19, 20 year old children give up and go home. Where it's safe. Where the answers are given to them.
My experience was incredibly mild compared to what other parents have suffered for letting their 7, 8, 9 year olds do things on their own. Arrested, children taken away, social services involved. I can't make this stuff up! (Parents Investigated)
So where is the balance? Isn't it totally dangerous in this modern world? While not all neighborhoods are equal, the overall statistics say that it is safer out in public than it was back in 1963. Don't believe it? Here. (Click that!)
I began to change the way I parented my kids in public. Now, I am the mother at the playground that most other parents are grumbling about. You know why? Because I allow my boys and girl to climb around on the playground equipment in creative and (yes) risky ways. When other kids see their actions, they naturally try to imitate what they see. This is when I hear, "No! Henry, that's fine for them but YOU don't climb there!" or my favorite, the not-so-subtle guilt arrow at my kids, "Anna, that's not how kids are SUPPOSED to use the jungle gym, so you stay away from them."
This spring when the weather was nice, I spent a few days helping organize and set up our local history museum. It's right downtown in our city of 3500 people. Within three blocks is the library which we have visited weekly or more for the last five years. A half mile the opposite direction lives my parents, on the far west edge of town. Each path has sidewalks, stop signs and crosswalks. I decided to give my kids some real world confidence.
First I coached them on how to respond to adults that saw them walking. Since they "should be in school," I let them know they owed no one an explanation on the way we homeschool, but if they felt it was needed, they could talk about our school schedule. Second, I made sure they understood basic safety concerns. Finally, I gave them a concrete return time, so I wouldn't have to go find them. With these ground rules, they were set.
I allowed them to go check out some books on our family account and then go visit Grandma. Neither the librarians nor my mom were expecting the kids. But each commented on how much they loved a visit from the children all on their own. My mother was so tickled in fact, she gave them ice cream and sat with them on her porch for a half hour before they decided to come back to the museum by me. She remarked later that the surprise visit made her week!
But who was impacted the most? My children. They begged me for more days like that, where they could reach a destination on their own, with no adult supervision. I brought them back the next week and this time, my nine year old brought some of his money. They went into the Dollar General (two blocks from the museum) and he used his money to successfully buy a treat for his siblings. I asked if the cashier had treated him well and he assured me that she had.
The experience was world building for them. And honestly? It gave me a new sense of confidence in my own children's abilities.
I am sure that if we lived within the boundaries of that small town, my kids would be wandering to parks, thrift stores and friends' houses all by themselves, all the time. I love living in the country, but I do wish I could give them that experience of trust and responsibility more often.
I follow a non-profit called Let Grow. Here is their site: letgrow.org. [THANKS!] I hope you visit it. I hope you, too, can feel empowered to let your children grow up a little. What better way to teach them responsible behavior and how the world works, than within the safety of your own counsel? Let them grow now, rather than stumble around as adult-children, thinking that the whole world is out to get them. If you have specific concerns about safety, they have an entire section full of statistics and interviews with experts on the reality of our culture today. It's called Really? and offers a wealth of information designed to help you move through the fears you may find challenging.
As for me? I'm actively decommissioning the parental helicopter where it makes sense for my individual children and for our family.
I have a challenge for you as a take-away. Ask yourself, "What is one thing I know I was able to do at [insert your child's name]'s age that I'm not letting them do?" Follow that question up with, "[Said child's name], do you want to try ______ today?"
Let me know how it goes! I'd LOVE to hear feedback.
So would we!!!
P.S. The mom in the photo isn't Rebekah, but she took the playground pic!