Helicopter Parenting Just Isn’t My Style

I was raised in a teeny tiny town in Southern Minnesota. My parents lived on a dead end street. At the end of the street was a huge wide open field. Throughout my childhood whenever me or one of my sibling started getting too rowdy in the house my dad was famous for saying, “Go out to the field if you’re gonna wrestle.” And out the door we ran.

We spent hours in that field running around like wild animals. There was no shortage of kids on our block and we terrorized the neighborhood. A few blocks down and just a short walk was a small creek encased in dozens of huge trees. Some of my best memories growing up are the long summer days we spent down at the creek with no adults in sight.

There’s no field at the end of my street. Just a busy intersection. And a few blocks down the street you’ll find a beautiful outdoor shopping center. It’s got a large water fountain filled with koi, but there’s not a creek in sight. So, when I want to give Gus the freedom to let loose and play, I take him to the park.

The park is Gus’s field. It’s his creek which means that I let him be. You won’t find me micromanaging Gus’s behavior at the park. Not a chance. It’s his chance to figure it out. It’s his time to be a kid. It’s my time to sit back and let him handle things. I’m not being lazy. It’s intentional.

It’s called Free Range Parenting. Although, I don’t really like to call it that. Mostly, I get hung up on the name. It sounds too much like I’m raising chickens. But it boils down to letting kids be kids and I couldn’t be more in favor of this.

The park is Gus’s space. It’s his time. His friends. His place to be a kid. Run! Jump! Scream! Tackle his friends. Play whatever he wants to play. Do what he wants to do. It’s the one place he doesn’t have to follow my agenda.

The park is where city kids learn who they are without their parents and I won’t take that away from him. Which means that I won’t be following him around in the sand and admonishing him to do this or that. Or stop. Or be gentle. Or be careful.  I let him figure out what happens if he is mean to another kid.  He’ll learn quickly that other kids don’t like mean kids. I let him figure out how to take turns and share. He’ll learn quickly that if he wants kids to share with him then he needs to share with them.

I let him jump off things and take risks. Part of childhood is skinned knees and bumps on the head. And I don’t want him to miss out on this piece.

And when he needs me at the park? Well, he knows when to get me. He knows when to get me just like we knew when we had to run home to get one of our parents. I can’t tell you the number of times I had to run home to get my dad because my brother was stuck in a tree.

But we always had a group meeting before the parents were called in. We had to reach a consensus that it was indeed a situation that required parental intervention because mostly we avoided the parents at all costs. Why? Well, we knew the parents were fun killers. We had to make sure we were willing to give up our fun.

So, I let Gus have his fun at the park. If you see me at the park, I’ll be on the sidelines. I’ll be on the sidelines chatting it up with a friend or sipping on a cup of coffee.




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26 Responses to Helicopter Parenting Just Isn’t My Style

  1. Meagan says:

    I’m curious how you deal with other parents who think you need to “parent” your child throught the park. Right now this isn’t an issue for me since my boy is too small to bother anyone. I spend my time making sure he doesn’t get himself trampled too badly (he’s 11 months). But once he’s the one running around, stepping on smaller kids, I’m not sure how possible it will be to stay out of his way?

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      I should have added that my son is 3 and a half. The half is important when you’re a kid:) During his first couple of years, I really didn’t have a choice except to follow him around the park. He started walking at nine months and I had to chase him everywhere. I had to keep him safe because he had no idea how to keep himself safe. I had to hover close by until he was old enough to venture out on his own. I have to admit that sometimes I get nasty looks while I’m at the park because I’m not on top of him constantly. I let him wrestle around in the sand with his friends and there’s been more than one occasion that another parent has pointed and said, “is that your kid…” Insinuating that I should stop him from wrestling.

      • Meagan says:

        I guess I’m more thinking of when other parents think I should be doing more to protect other kids from him. I can’t tell you how often I see this from the baby side. Ender (my son) will be, for example, leaning on a low play element, when an older child runs up, glances at Ender, and climbs on top of the platform. Invariably a parent will rush up and scold, “be careful of he baby!” Sometimes they’ll go even further and say “don’t climb there! There’s a baby there!” or, on the occasions that they’ve tried to engage Ender, “don’t play with the baby!” Which I don’t understand at all. On the other hand, I’ve been standing there when a woman came and started screeching at a group of little boys (no older than 4) for the crime of playing near her precious bundle (about 2 I’d guess) so maybe all the caution is purely reactive.

        Or there’s the unspoken “rules” of the playground, rules like “don’t climb up the slide.” I fully intend to let Ender break this rule when he’s old enough to try because I think there’s value in getting kicked occasionally, and in discovering that other kids don’t like it when you get in their way. But I know there will be parents who think his climbing the slide puts their child in danger, and even those who think its wrong to subject their child to the horror of having their pathway down the slide blocked. In other words, they think it’s my job to enforce the rules” and don’t believe their child is capable of saying “move.”

        • Mommy Psychologist says:

          Ah-ha! Now I see what you were asking. I see exactly what you mean. And I experienced the same thing. I was horrified at how many mothers would jump up and make sure kids couldn’t play with the baby. I’m baffled by this as well, especially if you are standing nearby. What is the harm in older ones playing with the babies? Listen, my little sister got poked in the eyes on more than one occasion and we carried her around like house like one of our dolls. She loved it. And when she didn’t, she protested as all babies do. Your slide comment was priceless! And true.

          • Rach says:

            One of the big things I see today is kids being “stuck” with their age peers. They’re in school together all day and then they have “play dates” with those kids or are on sports teams with those kids. Rarely do kids play in mixed-age groups any more and I think they’re really losing out.

            We all played together and you learned that “fair” and “equal” are not the same. What was fair for the four year old in kickball would not be fair to the 10 year old. Everyone played together, if there were rule infractions, they were fought out, people weren’t allowed to cheat because there was always a little kid there to call them on it.

            Today kids seem to be so overscheduled they don’t have time to just be kids. I heard recently that recent military recruits were unable to get together a pickup game of ball because they had never done so. Can you imagine?

            All this to say, what’s the harm with letting the bigger kids play with the baby?!?

          • Mommy Psychologist says:

            We also got into plenty of squabbles and all out fights when we were kids, but we always worked it out. It taught us how to resolve conflict by ourselves without the parents being involved to initiate it. We learned to get along or we were without playmates.

  2. Rach says:

    My parents’ houses were in the middle of the boonies. My dad’s house backed up on cow pastures and my mom’s was in the mountains on a dirt road with a creek winding through the property. We ran WILD and had a ball! I plan on doing the same with the girls. When I found the “free range” parenting movement I couldn’t help but think, “This is SO me!” (although I totally agree about it sounding like chickens).

    I don’t hover and will in fact try to shove my Lily birdie from the comfort of her nest–she’s a bit of a timid mouse and I am encouraging her to go off on her own a bit more (an example, restaurant bathrooms–I’m right there, I can see the bathroom, she can go do her thing and return). Meanwhile, Miss Bean is much braver and will attempt most anything, even if it *is* rather dangerous. So, since she’s only just two, I find I’m a bit more likely to steer her in a more appropriate direction.

    I can’t tell you how often I’ve said cuts and bruises are a part of childhood. This post really resonated with me. I’m sure I’m a “bad parent” to many (I know my mom is HORRIFIED I allow the girls to play in our fenced-in back yard unsupervised *gasp*–this from the same woman that allowed us to play in a creek and run wild where there were rattle snakes and copperheads…), but I’m betting my girls will really appreciate me when they’re grown. :o)

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      I’m with you. I’m pretty sure they will. I understand that we have to be a bit more cautious about predators and things like that that are out there these days. What I don’t understand is when we started thinking and acting like our children are so fragile? As if needing a band aid after a play date was going to be traumatic for them. Did you know that Lenore Skenazy (the woman who coined the term and the movement) was labeled “America’s Worst Mom?”

      • Rach says:

        I saw that. How dare she allow her son to ride the subway home by himself??? Didn’t she know he could be hurt, or worse yet, kidnapped????? Good grief. :oS

        I was really worried after we lost Hannah that I would put Lil in a bubble so made a conscious effort not to. Kids have to be free to explore and learn about the world around them. I LOVE “The Dangerous Book for Boys” and “The Daring Book for Girls”! Yes, adult supervision may be required, but they encourage exploration and adventure and I’m all for that. I don’t know about you, but when I birthed the girls, they didn’t come out wrapped in bubble wrap, nor did they send me home with a roll of the stuff. 😉

        I think parents are afraid of lawsuits, I really do. What happens if you have kids playing at your house and they get hurt?? Oh god, please don’t sue me!

        • Mommy Psychologist says:

          I could have used the bubble wrap during the early walking years:) I admire you for having the courage to not shelter your two little ones after losing Hannah. This must have been so hard not to do.

          In regard to the lawsuits, I’ve seen a couple of articles lately about parents having waivers at birthday parties! I’m not sure if the articles are just trying to be funny, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up there shortly.

  3. This was a recent interesting blog post with comment reactions about Free Range parenting: http://blogs.babble.com/kid-scoop/2012/04/16/are-you-raising-free-range-kids/

  4. Carrie says:

    First time commenter here! I read this and then, unexpectedly, wound up at the park today with my 22 month old son. (Loss of power in the night, readjusting my daily expectations, and oh look! There’s the park – let’s go!) Today, for some reason, he ran straight past all the toddler sized climbing equipment and headed right for the big kid stuff. With no warning or preamble, he climbed to the highest point of the whole shebang! He was probably 12 feet in the air on a platform in front of a spiral tube slide before I even knew what was happening. Seriously, he’d never done that before but he scampered up like a champion climber. I honestly had a moment of thinking “Oh no…how am *I* going to get up there?” before I took stock: I’m 3 weeks away from giving birth to Baby #2, the equipment was crawling with children ages 4-7, two daycare workers who were there with their charges were right there, not to mention the other helicoptering mothers who were nearby. How on earth was I going to be able to do anything but get in the way? So, I stayed on the ground and took video of my little monkey taking to new heights – solo! He’s a tad claustrophobic, so he never managed to convince himself to go down the spiral tube slide…but he enjoyed telling the bigger kids to “Go! Go!” before climbing back down the stairs and exploring the rest of the equipment. Within 15 minutes he had taught himself (again, first time he ever did this) how to climb UP the slide and thought himself quite clever for his prowess. He found another toddler girl that he took a fancy to and gave her many hugs, some of which knocked her over. She giggled. He found a younger boy with a ball and actually figured out how to play with him for a while. Meanwhile, I was hanging back…never more than 15 or so feet away, but not interacting with him in his play, not telling him what to do or how to do it, not enforcing any sort of ‘rules’, and you know what? It felt great!! I enjoyed watching him figure things out for himself, and frankly, today was the best day we’ve both had at the park in his life. Previous to today, we’ve encountered mean kids and bratty kids, and it just wasn’t fun. Today he managed to finesse his way through the social jungle of young childhood and find nice children to play with, learned some physics lessons, tested his bravery, and had an all around fabulous time. It was a beautiful 45 minutes for me, too. Later, when I was telling my mom about it, she asked me why I even bothered to stay so close and I had to honestly tell her that had I not been within 10-15 feet of my kid I’m sure that one of the other mom’s at the park would have called CPS on me! Those kids from the day care? I saw 4 of their moms’ come by with special lunches for them. Um…aren’t you paying these people to care for and feed your children? I understand sometimes it’s a nice treat to go have lunch with your kid at the park, but I can’t help but think it’s a symptom of a larger issue: helicopter parenting. Two of the children who were visited by their moms had a COMPLETE personality change when Mommy showed up…they went from sprightly, happy, exuberant children to reserved, somewhat sullen, whiny kids. Ugh. Anyway, I’m glad I read this post before taking my son to the park today. It was a really good reminder of a way to live up to my own personal beliefs about parenting. He’s still too little for me to sit on a bench and read a book (yet) but having a more hands off approach? Beautiful! (And I love Lenore Skenazy’s concepts, too.) Oh, and btw? The rest of the afternoon at the grocery store he was the most cooperative little boy – far more cooperative than usual! Maybe being allowed to assert his independence and spread his wings a bit gave him the breathing room to accept following the rules at a later time? Food for thought…

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks so much for your story, Carrie. I think your last comment is really insightful, too. Gus is a pretty strong willed child (I’m putting it mildly) and if I didn’t let go of the rings in appropriate situations, I think he would be an absolute terror. There probably is a lot of truth in your last statement.

  5. Carrie says:

    Um…oops. Sorry that was so long!

  6. Danielle Tong says:

    Hi, I’m a new parent to a 10 month old son, so there are a lot of things I’m still trying to figure out when it comes to parenting. But I often think about what I would want to do parenting-wise as he grows. So far, I try to set strong boundaries for my son that are applicable in every scenario, and then I try to reinforce those boundaries so he knows they are unchanging. Right now, the boundaries are simple because he’s so young – I require that when he hears me address him, he respond accordingly. I try to teach him words like, ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘come here’, ‘finished.’ I expect him to comply with those, no matter where we are. He’s pretty good at this so far – as good as I can expect for 10 months old. Getting to the point: I would imagine that not enforcing whatever boundaries you set at home, at the park, store, or where ever could really set your child up for some confusion or for the belief that he can/should/must behave differently in different situations. For instance, if I say to my son (when he’s older), “Son, don’t climb up that tower.” I expect him to comply, and if he doesn’t we leave the park. “Son, we respect other people. Do not hit other children.” I expect him to comply with that and he should expect to be removed from the situation if he doesn’t. Is this helicopter parenting? I’m just very afraid for my child to become selfish, self-centered, and unconcerned with the needs of others.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks for your comments, Danielle. I’m not trying to imply that there aren’t any rules for Gus’s behavior. There are and he’s quite aware of them. He also knows that different situations require different behavior. For example, his behavior when he goes to the movies is not the same as when he is out riding his bike or playing outside. He knows that there are situations when he is expected to sit still and talk quietly. He’s pretty compliant in that regard. He is also aware of the situations like the park where he gets to be a bit more responsible over governing his own behavior. For example, I can tell him numerous times that if he isn’t nice to kids they won’t play with him. However, he really learns this message if he does something that isn’t nice to another child and then they don’t play with him. In this regard, social experience is a great teacher.

  7. Amber says:

    That’s my style as well. I would rather my kids have fun than have me control all aspects of their play. I guess that’s why both have their fair share of bumps and bruises. :)

  8. Pingback: Would You Take Your Child To The Park And Leave Them There? | The Mommy Psychologist

  9. DaveTheDad says:

    I came across your site linked from TheAtlantic.com article on the passing of Maurice Sendak and his approach in writing for children.

    I’m now the proud Father of a 4 mth old girl and have been thinking a lot on ‘Parenting styles’. Growing up, I was laid back and took thing as they came. As I grew into Adulthood, I became more rigid and ‘rules based’. I blame my time in the military, lol.

    Anyway, as I’ve been digging deeper into myself for what I want to provide for my child, I’d have to say that it’s not the hovering Father, ‘don’t do that!’, ‘my way or the highway’ kind of style.

    I’d like it to be more organic, if that makes sense, and be more open to times of schedules and others of openness and exploration. Schedules for feeding, sleep, and those type of activities – but wide open for times when there are opportunities for education, exploration, and socialization.

    I didn’t realize there was a whole sector of like-minded parents that didn’t need to oversee every single moment of their child’s time. I’m off to do more research on this now… thanks for the 411.

  10. Rachel says:

    I’m not really sure how I feel about this. I was also raised free range style but only after a certain age. At 3 1/2 if a Mother saw one of the kids smack the other there would be intervention, or so I have been told. If there was an issue with sharing the parents would help mediate.

    My oldest is now 5 and he is completely free range at the park. When you live in a big city like Rio de Janeiro free range is sadly limited.

    Anyway, I think this kind of parenting has an age. You can’t expect all 3 years olds to “figure it out” but you also shouldn’t figure it out for them. I’m all about talking about it. We are in an age where bullying is high, as it was in the old school free range day, and thus we need to teach the basics to them when they are young. Help them learn to share and then let them practice, intervene if things starting getting out of hand ie hitting etc.

    I do agree that at about school age kids can find you when they need you, negotiate, etc. I helped my 5 yr learn certain social skills when he was smaller and it hasn’t hurt his self identity in the slightest.

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