Free-Range Parenting

Are you a helicopter parent? Do you hover over everything your child does, afraid to let down your guard for fear that he will be molested, kidnapped or not get into the college of his (your) choice? This Time Magazine article discusses the evolution of  over-parenting and its backlash movement, otherwise known as slow, simplicity, free-range or just plain “bad” parenting. (As you can tell from the title of this post, I’m partial to the term “free-range” parenting.)

You might be wondering where bad parenting fits into this. What I mean that is what helicopter parents would consider to be bad parenting. Any lackadaisical attitude displayed by parents toward the upbringing of their children is bad parenting. Memoirs are good places to find examples of bad parenting (Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors comes to mind) but even with worst-case scenarios, it is obvious that the recipients of the bad parenting–the authors–must have survived. Children are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.

That doesn’t mean that we can neglect and abuse them. But it does mean that they can survive all kinds of parenting styles, even obsessive parenting. The question is, which styles are better in the long run for our children’s self-esteem? What do we accomplish by hovering over our children at every turn? One result is that we may pass our own anxieties onto our children, making them afraid to venture out into the world. Or, when we do everything for them, from arranging play-dates to picking out colleges, we undermine their ability to do anything for themselves.

The “heretics”–those who are calling for a new (or return to the old) doctrine of parenting–might put their message this way, according to Nancy Gibbs, the author of the Time article: “Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. We’re often the ones who hold them down.”

In case you think I’m overstating the sins of the helicopter parents, how about these peccadilloes? Kneepads for babies, text messages from parents protesting exam grades before class is even over, refusing to let parents volunteer at schools without a background check, colleges installing “Hi, Mom!” webcams in common areas, taking pictures of their kids each morning before they go to school in case they get kidnapped that day.

Consider Lenore Skenazy who wrote Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. In case you don’t remember, Skenazy caused a furor last year when she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway by himself–and wrote about it. Whether or not you agree with her action, she may have a point when she says that “by worrying about the wrong things, we do actual damage to our children, raising them to be anxious and unadventurous or, as she puts it, ‘hothouse, mama-tied, danger-hallucinating joy extinguishers.'” Pretty strong word. But is she right?

Then there is the spate of “bad mother” books and blogs out there that aim to break down the myths that 1) everything depends on Mom; and 2) that mothers have to be perfect. There are Kate Long’s The Bad Mother’s Handbook which was first published in 2005 and Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace which came out in May of this year. (You can also find Waldman’s now defunct blog here, her new website here and a Time interview with her here.)

When my grandson wanted to start walking home by himself last year, my daughter prepared him by first meeting him half-way, then by waiting for him at home to make sure he got home okay. That was more for her comfort than for his. He now walks home and even stays by himself for awhile until she gets home from work. He’s proud of himself, especially of the time he forgot his key and managed to fit his arm through the mail slot and unlock the door. Kids are also resourceful.

The thing is, when parents worry so much about their kids, they become less assured as well. What they are really saying is that they have lost faith in their ability to protect their children. So you have parents with a lack of confidence raising kids to be just like them. It’s not easy to have confidence as a parent. But trying to be perfect only sends the message that your child needs to be perfect as well. And frankly, that would be a little boring. Is that what we really want?

Watch “How to Teach Your Kids to Be Independent”: