I was on the playground the other day with my five-year-old, and I brought a book with me. You see, I was determined to actually sit on the bench and read while he played. A funny thing happened, though. All the other parents were standing close by their kids and directing their play. (Now, I understand why you would do this with a younger child or toddler, but I’m talking parents of eight-year-olds here.) The parents, who I didn’t know, kept looking over their shoulders at me, as if to say, “Why aren’t you in here helping your child?” My son was going up and down the slide and having a ball, so I didn’t get what the fuss was about. As I reluctantly got up to supervise him, it hit me: being a helicopter parent is starting to become the new norm.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of helicoptering behavior myself at times. I’m sure my mom, for one, thinks I’m way too involved in my son’s play activities. And when I think of how I grew up, I can see why. My big brother and I, along with the neighborhood kids, would be out in the woods all day, making dams in the creek behind our house, or playing capture the flag for hours until my mom called us home. (My husband Joe grew up in an urban area and describes day-long “kick the can” matches and having the run of his neighborhood.) And when my mom took us to the playground, she brought a book and actually read it. The unstated rule was that we only went to her if we were bleeding, a bone was broken or a tooth had been knocked out. And I’d have to say most of my friends’ moms and dads were the same.
I know things have changed since then and people are more worried in general about their kids, (perhaps we’re more aware of the dangers out there?) but I also think undirected play — times when kids can just be kids and not have a grown-up hovering over them or telling them how to play — is one of the most important things we can give our children. One of my best memories of childhood is that I had the sheer luxury of time: Time to just hang out and observe an anthill for an hour, to watch the clouds making shapes in the summer sky, and time for my friends and I to come up with games, all on our own. No parents allowed.
Any helicopter parent stories you’d like to share? And, are you a hands-off parent, or do you tend to jump in there and guide your kids as they play? There are no wrong answers here — it’s all a balance, after all.
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.