Are you a “helicopter parent” or a “free-range parent?” I’d like to believe that most parents fall somewhere in between these two extremes: We’re interested and invested in seeing our kids succeed and be safe in life, yet we also understand that in order to learn about the real world we live in and become independent, our kids need the freedom to make (and learn from) mistakes. Some parents hover over their kids, fearful that the mistakes they make can lead to rejection, serious injury, or worse. These parents are judged by others as overprotective and meddlesome in their children’s social development. Other parents, feel their children should be given as much freedom from supervision as possible. Nafari Vanaski isn’t so extreme:
I guess it’s my turn for a true confession, although this could land me or my children in jail, but here goes: Sometimes, when I take my children to the park, I don’t play with them. I let them go on low slides and in sandboxes and befriend other kids. I’ll keep an eye on them, while sometimes also reading a book, or making a phone call.
Why? This is the other true confession that parents aren’t supposed to make — that we judge each other sometimes. I see other parents literally hovering over their children every step they take as they play, and I think: Really? I promise myself I’m going to just read my book and let my kids play. Maybe they get scraped knees. I got them, too, when I was a kid. And here I am (cough, cough), years later, with all my limbs and a couple scars on my knees.
Megan McArdle lists seven reasons why modern parents hover so much, starting with cable TV:
When you listen to parents talk about why they hover, you’ll frequently hear that the world is more dangerous than it used to be. This is the exact opposite of the truth. But it may feel more dangerous because the media landscape has shifted.
There were always stranger abductions, but they were extremely rare, perhaps two or three per 1 million children under 12 annually. In the 1970s, you most likely heard only about local cases, and because these were rare, you would hear about one every few years in a moderately large metropolitan area. Very occasionally, a case would catch the imagination and make national news, like the Lindbergh baby.
Then came cable news, which needed to fill 24 hours a day with content, and these sorts of cases started to make national news. We did not register this as “I’m hearing more about these cases because they are drawn from a much larger population.” Instead, it was as if stranger abductions had increased.
With the Internet we have thousands of cases at the tips of our fingers, and the same failures of statistical intuition make it feel like terrible things are happening constantly.
Anya Sostek gets some good advice from a local child and adolescent psychiatrist on how to slowly and carefully foster a child’s independence:
Dr. Swanson declined to recommend ages that children should be given certain responsibilities, noting that whether a 10-year-old could play at a neighborhood park would depend on that 10-year-old, and that neighborhood, and that park. Teaching kids independence is just like teaching them to walk, he said, and parents should literally start with baby steps.
He recommends observing them or maybe giving them responsibility for a younger sibling when a parent is home. Or for a parent to take them to a park but back off, without telling them what to do. He also recommends that parents have specific conversations with their children about what to do in a fire, what to do when approached by a stranger, or whether to answer the front door.
Increased responsibility can teach children self-efficacy, he said, and make them more confident in trying new things.
“In our culture these days, parents are more likely to be anxious, and what kids pick up is ‘Hey, my park is a dangerous place, my world is a dangerous place,’ ” he said. “That may be true at 3 but it’s not true at 21, and at some point they need to learn.”
The saying is true: It takes a village to raise a child, and that village — its physical nature as well as its social makeup — is changing all the time. Thinking it hasn’t changed since “when I was a kid” is dangerous, but thinking it has changed immensely may be more so. Like most things, parents are left to try to find that healthy balance.