Helicopter parent in training

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about the messages society sends to parents about parenting over the last five years. Many times, especially on bad days, the message seems to be “UR DOIN IT RONG. ITS ALL UR FAULT.” OK, possible with better spelling, but still. This was particularly brought to mind a few days in an Annie’s Mailbox column. (What – I’ve confessed my addiction to advice columns previously!)

Dear Annie: Last weekend, I stayed at an upscale motel where they serve breakfast in the lobby. After eating, I went to the elevator, and a little boy, perhaps 6 years old, left the table where his father was eating and announced, “I’m going up to Mom.” Dad agreed, and the boy rode up to the third floor with me, chatting the whole time, before getting off on my floor and pounding on a door farther down the hall.

Annie, this child could have been abducted at any time. The elevator was at the intersection of two hallways and was 10 feet from a stairwell. Anyone could have gotten on that elevator or been in the hallway when he got off. I was tempted to say something to the parents, but figured I would be told to mind my own business. Please remind parents that the world is not child friendly and safe, and even the most responsible “big boy” or girl could disappear in a matter of seconds. — Concerned in Texas

Dear Texas: We appreciate the heads up. Most children are safer than we fear, but still, parents need to be cautious and alert. A motel is filled with strangers, and there are hallways, doorways and empty rooms where kids can be lost — or taken. It is foolish to allow young children to run around unseen and unsupervised in such places, not only because the child can lose his way, but because it presents an opportunity for those with malicious intent. Next time, speak up. Even if the parents tell you to MYOB, they might be more circumspect in the future.

I read this and heaved a big sigh. This could totally be me with Grey. I would do this (let him tackle a task he was capable of), and I would feel anxious about it. And I would have thought of it before a stranger came up to me and told me that I was endangering my child and that he could be snatched away by bad guys at any moment. (For the record, strangers concerned about the appropriateness of your parenting are about a gazillion times more common than strangers interesting in kidnapping your child for nefarious purposes.)

I think a lot about risk analysis, and about what’s likely to happen, what is unlikely but dire, and what is unlikely and undire and try to act appropriately. Yes, a child in a hotel could be abducted (risk: 1 in 347,000, most of which are by people the child knows. The odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are 1 in 1.5 million). The hotel could also be blown up by terrorists (1 in 88,000). It could explode due to a gas pipeline rupture. It could be hit by a meteor ( 1 in 500,000 over the next century). My child could be exposed to measles from an unvaccinated patron. The hotel could have trace levels of radon that might lead to cancer years later. It could be serving salmonella eggs in the continental breakfast. The biggest actual risk my child faces, however, is when I strap him into his carseat to leave the hotel (1 in 23,000 for a child). I do try to be careful: my children are ALWAYS buckled in in the car, they will ALWAYS wear helmets when appropriate, I actively supervise them… but I still want to teach them to be independent people who are capable of doing things without me.

Which brings us to the second way we parents are all doing it wrong. In addition to being negligent people who allow our 6 years olds to go to their hotel rooms without us, we are also helicopter parents who are ridiculously over-involved and have wrapped our children in bubble wrap, denying them any opportunity to develop grit, fortitude or independent opinions.

So to sum up, parents should exercise CONSTANT VIGILANCE while creating independent children who try and fail, and learn the appropriate lessons from this.

Do you see any problem here, or contradiction? Yeah, me too. I do know which side of this divide I come down on. I believe in my children’s capacity. I work hard to provide them with early and non-permanently-damaging opportunities to discover cause and effect, and consequences. I let them jump when they might break their leg if they’re not careful. I let them out of my sight when it seems appropriate. I’ve tried to give them the skills to mitigate this. Grey knows his full name, his address and my cell phone number. I’ve taught him how to call people on the phone, and when to dial 911. I’ve taught him what to do in case of a house fire ( 1 in 1,116 lifetime). I’m not careless.

I’m just trying to raise children who can thrive without me, so I don’t have to negotiate their benefits package for their first professional jobs when they’re 23.

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

11 thoughts on “Helicopter parent in training”

  1. Hear hear. And let’s face it, if we were always to err on the side of “low probability/high consequence”, no one would ever leave the house. The world is not as nefarious as we seem to have come to expect. I wonder what sort of outcry–or lawsuits–Annie might have faced if she had responded to the letter with your advice instead of the usual scaremongering that seems to be a subconscious part of modern society.


      1. From that link: “[Parents] have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world.”

        Wow. I never thought about it quite that way. So true, and so sad.


      2. We saw SO many little kids on the Tube in London, alone – obviously off to school as they were uniformed. I was sure if I should applaud them for being able to negotiate the Tube alone, or wonder if their parents were insane!


  2. I definitely feel that loss of confidence, or where it comes from. I find myself more susceptible than I wish to be to the argument that I need to worry and hover more, and that anything bad that ever happens is totally my fault.


  3. We have always said we raised you children on a policy of benign neglect, and look how well you turned out!

    (I find this policy much harder to follow when I am caring for my grandchildren. Why was it ok for you kids, but too risky for your children. Weird!)


  4. Ironically, you’re still doing it wrong – their chance of dying because they don’t wear a helmet is basically zero, because helmets have been shown in the real world to do absolutely nothing to help major injury or death rates – the kids are worse off if they give up even one cycling trip because they have to wear the stupid hat.


    1. I may also be rather biased on this point. My sister was in a serious bicycle accident that required reconstuctive surgery. Had she not been wearing her helmet, she would likely have also had a traumatic brain injury. She probably would’ve survived, but her intellectual capacity might not have. Helmets do help when you land on your head.


    2. When I came to after my catastrophic bike wreck, the paramedics were already there. My helmet was cracked clear across. My skull was not. I realize this is anectdata, but I find it compelling, as you can imagine.

      My partner has traumatic brain injury stemming from head blows in 1997. It affects his life every day. His IQ is quantifiably lower, his ADD is stronger, his cognition is damaged. These blows were not classified as “major injuries” at the time. They wouldn’t appear in your statistics. But I will tell you that he is now more disabled than the friend whose lungs collapsed and ribs broke.

      My kids have never had a bike ride without a helmet. They’ve never seen us ride without a helmet. It’s a cheap and easy habit, like putting on a seatbelt every time you get in a car.

      You only get one brain. They heal strangely and incompletely.


      1. Great points. I wonder how many of those estimated 149,300 bicyclist head traumas that did not result in death in 2004 did result in major impairment. I wonder how many of those would have been prevented if the bicyclist had been wearing a helmet? Parents who follow Free Range Kids probably like to look at data to make reasonable decisions. For these questions, though, I’m out of numbers.


  5. @mdahmus I’m afraid the research I did on the subject does not seem to back you up on that:


    While the chance of dying in a bicycle accident is extremely small regardless of whether or not you wear a helmet (722 deaths out of an estimated 150,000 bike accidents involving a head trauma in 2004), wearing a helmet does seem to favorably reduce the chance of death from head trauma even further (87 of the 722 bicyclists who died in 2004 were wearing helmets). Given the vanishingly small chance of death in either case, I’m personally quite comfortable leaving the requirement for wearing a helmet up to the parent.


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