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.