Helicopter versus free-range parenting


The Huffington Post published an extensive compilation of blog posts and articles delineating the pros and cons of helicopter, versus free-range parenting.

For any parent not in the know, helicopter parenting literally translates to hovering, which implies over-protecting. As the name illustrates, helicopter parents hover over their children. They keep them on short leashes — in some cases — pun intended. They’re interpersonally involved in their children’s social politics and relations, from school to sports to extracurricular activities. Conversely, free-range parents are accused of taking a laissez-faire approach to their children’s well-being. It’s argued, they are too cavalier regarding their children’s safety and welfare. But free-rangers disagree. Experiences, good and bad, are vital for rounding out a child’s development, they say. The world is not always pleasant many agree.

Hovering, or smothering a child

In a 2014 article, Maine writer and professor, Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes unapologetically declares herself a helicopter parent. She recounts the story of her 8-year-old daughter who came home from school one day in tears. Her daughter said the teacher didn’t understand her and picked on her. Instead of firing up the Volvo and tearing off to the school, Stokes says she and her husband decided to let their daughter work out the issues on her own. Only later did Stokes learn that the teacher had publicly humiliated her daughter by having her explain to the class why she only got a C-minus on a math test. Stokes pulled her daughter out of school — it was April — and homeschooled her for the remainder of the school year.

After that, Stokes says she had no compunction about becoming the quintessential helicopter parent. She writes, “[My daughter] came home upset about a movie on climate change that had graphics making the apocalypse seem real, and I fired off an email asking the teachers to better contextualize their material. She was bullied by a classmate, and I was in the principal’s office at the end of the school day.” Stokes believes there is no such thing as being too involved in the life of her child. She concedes this may be overprotective but, as she writes, “We are also bombarded with stories about children jumping to their deaths at cement factories and hanging themselves from stairwells, or being gunned down in their own classrooms.”

Critics point out helicopter parents’ take a school shooting tragedy and use it to justify their behavior. Terrible things happen, this is a fact. Opponents to helicopter parenting emphasize no amount of intervention can make the world completely safe for children. This is not the same as leading lambs to a slaughter; it is just pragmatic. Stokes parenting style is the resounding reply to the question: who will erect a bulwark between children and the big bad wolves out there?

Free range parenting: organic and grass roots

In one of the Huffington pieces, Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute, writes that a number of parents have been charged lately for offenses relating to parental neglect. Many in these cases self-identified as free-range parents. In one case that made national news, a couple from Silver Springs, Maryland, ran up against that city’s child protective services agency for allowing their children, ages six and ten, to walk home, unaccompanied, along a busy street from a park about a mile from their home. Danielle and Alexander Meitiv explained to the Washington Post, “How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?” The couple said the family eats meals together. They attend synagogue as a family. But the couple believes, as do proponents of free-range parenting, the risks to children today are exaggerated. Proponents add allowing children to walk unaccompanied, within reason, is not neglectful; rather, it instills independence, self-reliance, and builds character. “The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood,” said Danielle.

In theory, free-range parenting makes perfect sense. And for anyone who grew up in the 60s or 70s, no one referred to it as free-range; it was simply childhood. But despite what the Meitivs contend, the world is not a safer place for children. Perhaps statistically, crimes against children are down from what they were ten or twenty years ago. But predators are now more sophisticated. The internet has opened an entirely new vista for exploitation. Perhaps free-range parenting advocates are cavalier because they have never had to endure the loss of a child. It only takes one.

Parenting styles: Finding the happy medium

Galinsky says parents need to know their communities. Physically walk neighborhoods. Explore the dark recesses. Teach children to be more self-reliant. There are skills children can acquire to make it easier to survive in the world. These include:

  • Define and take note of landmarks and people’s appearance; these are components of situational awareness
  • Never going anywhere alone
  • Never approach any strange vehicle
  • Never accept stranger friend request or engage conversation on public online apps with strangers

Part of parenting is learning to step back and allow children to take on challenges without a net. Mothers and fathers would do well to encourage kids to take on new challenges and process failure. Reassure them it’s okay to be afraid but not to allow fear to prevent them from trying something new. Lastly, instill in children cognizance to be self-aware and to trust their instincts. Every human being is equipped with a fight or flight response. In children, flight is always best. These experiences will help children to be able to make smart choices in avoiding drug use and other damaging behaviors.

White River Academy is a residential boarding school located at the edge of the majestic Great Basin in Delta, Utah. White River focuses on treating young men with addiction and mental health disorders. We offer a challenging curriculum coupled with therapeutic approaches to learning to ensure that the young men who leave our academy are equipped with the resources to make their way in the world.

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