Monday, February 20, 2012

Take a Ride on My Helicopter

helicopter parenting

noun Informal .
a style of child rearing in which an overprotective mother or father discourages a child's independence by being too involved in the child's life: In typical helicopter parenting, a mother or father swoops in at any sign of challenge or discomfort.
1985–90;  so called because such a parent ‘hovers’ like helicopter


You know them, the helicopter parents.  They cushion the falls or, whenever possible, prevent them; they make excuses for their children; they save the day when a child has been irresponsible.  They are also involved - on the PTA, as the team mom/dad, as the coach, certainly as the chauffer.  When I didn't have kids, I thought it would be so easy to set the boundaries, follow through every time, dole out the discipline when necessary, and everything would play out exactly as I imagined.  I certainly never imagined that I would be a helicopter parent.

Then, I actually had kids.

Suddenly, it wasn't so cut and dry. To some degree, I think most parents have some of the characteristics of helicopter parents.  There is such a primal drive to protect your children.  I was unprepared for how the depth and breadth of my love would cause me to reconsider my grand plans.  Seeing your child happy and thriving is a potent vision.  Who wouldn't want to see their children happy and thriving and be willing to go to nearly any lengths to see them like that all the time?

Learning that your child has a personality and temperament all her own can be a turning point from what you thought you would do to what will actually work.  It is hard to balance the protective instinct that drives the helicopter parent to hover against the knowledge that sometimes we learn more and become better people in the school of hard knocks. It is hard when you look at that sweet face and know that you should enforce the rules, but shudder at the thought of making that sweet face frown because of what you say or do.

I can already hear the voices of protest - many from my friends who are teachers - saying that I am letting the helicopter parent off the hook by describing them simply as protective.  The voices of protest are right, because helicopter parents can have some pretty ugly characteristics, too.  If a child gets a bad grade, the helicopter parent may blame the teacher, the school, the curriculum.  If the child is a bully, it is only because he was provoked first.  Assuming, of course, that there is any acknowledgement at all that the child actually did any bullying.  Many helicopter parents believe their children can do no wrong. The list of grievances against a helicopter parent is long and justified.

I struggle with my inner helicopter mom, especially when it comes to K.  I struggle with it with S, too, but for different reasons.  When I hover over S, the behavior stems from my need to keep her close, to be involved, and to experience life with her.  Sometimes she does need me there, depending on the situation.  Sometimes she needs me by her side to help boost her confidence in a new situation.  Part of the choice to be a stay-at-home mom is driven by the desire to be present and active in her daily pursuits in ways that would be more difficult if I was a working mom.  There are times, however, when she doesn't really need me to hover, yet I find myself there, propeller spinning, waiting.

With K, the helicopter mom in me is driven almost entirely by that primal need to protect her. That, and fear.  She is, in my mind, more vulnerable.  Most extra-special kids are so easily influenced by their peers, I feel compelled to be increasingly vigilant in my protection of her.  I fear that she will be hurt in ways that will affect her for life.  I fear that some stupid kid will make bad choices seem exciting and justified and then what will I do?  Fear, and lots of it.

For S, I still fight my helicopter instincts, but have learned a little more easily when I need to step back.  As hard as it is, sometimes she has to fail forward to success.  There are times when we really do learn more from our mistakes and in order for her to do that, I have to let her make those mistakes.  So, once a year, she can forget her gym clothes or her homework or her lunch and I will bail her out.  After that, she's expected to remember or solve the problem herself.  We don't hold her hand for all of her schoolwork; she is supported when she needs extra help, but is the only one truly responsible for her grades.  I know when I need to push her a little bit so that she will learn to take risks, even if it doesn't turn out exactly as she (or I) hoped.  I am dreading the day that we have to really lay down the law and dole out some serious consequences.  It will happen and I'm sure it won't be a pretty sight when it does, but it will be necessary.

For K, fighting my inner helicopter mom is so much harder to do.  I know that she already works harder than anyone else in our house, just to get through her days.  She is so good at it, too!  I don't want things to be any harder for her.  I am learning, though, that as much as she needs my protection, she needs me to step back.  I need to have the faith in her that when she stumbles, she will be able to get back up.  I need to believe in her abilities to weather the storms.  I need to give her the opportunities to make those same mistakes.  In 2nd grade, K forgot her backpack one day.  She absolutely, positively flipped out.  I mean, full on meltdown - crying, begging me to go home and get it "right now," not wanting to go to school at all until her backpack was there.  Part of that came from her reliance on routines, but the other part was simply that this had never happened before.  Why?  Because I haven't given her many chances to make a mistake like that.  I learned a lot that day.  I did, eventually, get her backpack to school, but because I had other things to do, it didn't get there until lunchtime.  What I figured out, though, is that she might not have been so overwhelmed by the situation if she had experienced a few more like that before.  I have to remember that she is so much more capable than I sometimes allow her to be.

Every day, I have to remind myself that I have a clear set of objectives in parenting.  Call it a "mission statement" if you will, but my goal is to raise kind, responsible, respectable, respectful, smart adults who want to be contributing members of the community.  To do that, I have to cut the engine on my inner helicopter.  I have to do some of the hard stuff.  I have to be more patient because sometimes letting them figure some of it out just takes longer.  I have to remember that eliminating all discomfort from their lives leaves them ill-equipped to be the adults that I hope them to be.  It's painful for all of us and it gives me a newfound respect for my own parents.  I didn't like being grounded at that time, but I can see now that it built some resilience in me that has served me well.  My girls need to learn to roll with the punches, as they say, and they can't do that if I serve my own emotional needs by making everything perfect and easy.

That's my grand plan, now.  I guess time will tell if it works out well - for all of us!

1 comment:

  1. I admit, I used to be a Helicopter parent. Always making excuses for A's meltdowns..always trying to tell people he couldn't do this or why he couldn't do that and here let me do it for him. It sucked. When A went to pre-k..I stopped all that. I now make him be independent and only lending a helphing hand after he's tried and tried and tried to do something. It's a good change for both of us :o)