Helicopter vs. Free-Range Parenting

I recently listened to a National Public Radio interview where the miseries caused by “helicopter parenting” were enumerated. The discussion featured a prominent scholar/author on the subject, as well as a Kennesaw State University counselor. It was quite interesting.

Evidently, emotional immaturity is on-the-rise on college campuses, and the occurrence of emotional breakdowns over minor challenges and struggles is commonplace.

The culprit?

Helicopter parenting. A term coined in the late 1960s (Haim Ginott, 1969) that has become representative of overprotective, over involved, smothering parents, more recently described as drones.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is what has been called “free-range parenting” (Lenore Skenazy, 2009). This approach encourages children to be age-appropriately-independent, and develop their personal potential in situations that are not risk free. Some have criticized this approach, saying it is simply what used to be called “parenting.”

There has always been disagreement with regard to child parenting and child education methods: too lenient, too disciplined; too amorphous, too structured. And like the pendulum, we tend to vacillate between the extremes, possibly because that makes it easier for us to see the difference between the points being debated.

Some tend to balk at positions that bear too much similarity; they get lost in the minutiae. In addition, many carry the old “if a little is good, more is better” approach, so they are more comfortable migrating toward one extreme or the other. Our sociopolitical postures seem to bear this out as well.

The permissiveness of the 1960s ushered in an approach to living, child rearing, education, religion, etc. that has had half a century to ferment. Dr. Spock notwithstanding, so-called “conservative” approaches to child rearing have remained, but I think it is safe to say that the general tenor of American society (not to mention many other developed societies) still embraces the so-called “freedoms” espoused by the activists of the 1960s; we are the most “tolerant” we have ever been. And some would argue, the most unhappy.

As I listened to the aforementioned interview I was intrigued when the scholar/author denigrated the “helicopter” parents, saying that children must be allowed to interact with one another without parental supervision, thereby helping them to discover on their own how to function as an adult, and gain the strength of character only attained through personal, unaided interaction with the environment.

My mind immediately went back to a book I read in school many years ago: Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1954), which illustrates what happens when children are allowed to freely arrive at their own rules of behavior when there is no adult supervision. If it is true that Golding’s book was a direct reaction to the 1858 classic, The Coral Island, by R.M. Ballantyne, then it illustrates our current situation precisely, and gives a bit of history to the swinging pendulum of moral sophistication.

My wife and I chose to home school our two children. Now I know that immediately makes us suspect to some readers. Be that as it may, we discovered in our research (prior to embarking on this “risky” endeavor) that parenting methods and influences of the past changed radically when children left life “in the country” where they worked alongside their parents; they exchanged relationships with adults, siblings and neighbors for relationships primarily with friends at school. [See Raising Children for Success, by H. Stephen Glenn, with Jane Nelsen, 1987]

Close relationships between children and parents soon became an anomaly, and the norm was represented by the proverbial rift between the two. Parents would more often than not roll their eyes and say, “Just wait until you have teenagers.” And their children would never dream of sharing their deepest feelings with their parental nemeses; and they do their share of eye-rolling, too.

I tell young parents just the opposite: “Don’t buy into the lie that your children will be your enemies, and that you will lose their love, respect, and intimacy when they reach their teen years.” It is simply not true.

But, of course, that depends, in part, on how you approach your parenting. Smothering can foment rebellion, but unbridled freedom can do the same.

We may be at a point in our society where we are approaching “the perfect storm.” Our worship of “tolerance” has all but caused us to lose our identity as a society. Somehow many have come up with the notion that we are becoming more and more civilized with each generation, and that we are on a path toward equality and social awareness. We fancy ourselves defenders of the less fortunate and the downtrodden, and we applaud those who propound extremist views and aberrant ideologies (unless they are terrorists – we are not that open minded).

Paranoia has a strangle hold on us, and every hint of racial injustice that is communicated through the plethora of social media outlets exacerbates it. Difficult times are ahead, and our children may not be up to the task that awaits them.

Granted, I am no expert on education or child rearing. I taught high school (and some junior high school) for 10 years in Tennessee; my wife taught about the same length of time in Ohio and Tennessee. We raised two children and we were, at times, overprotective – especially as compared with the rearing of some of their contemporaries. There is no perfect balance, at least not one that is attainable.

But perfection is hardly the point. Both extremes appear wrong: helicoptering and free-ranging. But there is a far more important question that must be answered. For the truth is that each set of parents will lean toward one extreme or the other. And both can train children who are successful people in our society, able to contribute valiantly in the trying times ahead.

The real question is whether or not parents will embrace the responsibility to invest in their children (no matter the style), guide them, and nurture them, or whether they will assume that the children can raise themselves either by individual personal direction or in the crucible of their herd.

When I was 10 years old my father decided that my older brother and I should “have it out,” i.e. fight. This was his attempt (I believe) to settle a score he never got to settle with his own older brother. Trouble is, my brother is almost 3 years older than me, and he easily beat me up. Undoubtedly, my father envisioned it going another way, but it was his attempt to bow out of the fracas he typically had with my brother, and allow me to defend myself (on his behalf). I lost miserably.

Some might suggest I learned something important in that bout, but I think I just got a bloody nose and avoided my brother’s fists. Actually, I already knew about the latter danger, so that lesson was somewhat redundant.

In certain segments of our current society it appears we have embraced the notion that children can raise themselves, and we are experiencing the detrimental effects of that ideology.

Children learn how to be adults by modeling their adult model’s behavior, not by modeling the behaviors and attitudes of other children who are as clueless as they are about what this thing called “life” is all about. Parents must gladly embrace this modeling role and bring their children alongside them in a variety of situations so that when they are absent the child will know how to interact with others.

My hope is that we rethink the notion that children are best raised when they raise themselves, and rethink it quickly. To do so will require that we go against the grain of popular thought and cutting-edge educational theory. It will require a metamorphosis of sorts.

To refuse this change will result in something more Kafkaesque than we can imagine.

About ivanbenson

I am a singer, guitar player, writer, story teller, voice over talent, and heart attack survivor in the Atlanta, Georgia area.
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4 Responses to Helicopter vs. Free-Range Parenting

  1. Mon says:

    Excellent! You gave us lots to think about!

  2. Suzanne says:

    One of my faves – really good stuff to think through!

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