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Are Parents to Blame for Helicopter Parenting?

By Michelle Higgins - 17th October 2011

According to current popular discourse, modern day parents fall into one of two distinct categories: relaxed free-ranger or over involved and controlling helicopter.  And while much fun can be had satirising the extremes of either parenting style, missing from the discussion has been a deeper analysis of the larger context in which everyday parenting decisions are made.

The free range parenting movement, led by New Yorker Lenore Skenazy, is a necessary correction to the most extreme versions of helicopter parenting. Children encased in thick layers of bubble wrap are denied vital experiences, opportunities to not only succeed on their own terms but just as importantly, to fail.  However, what might be deemed free range in one context will look an awful lot like neglect in another.

When it comes to our children’s online lives, employing anything short of a fleet of helicopters is viewed as irresponsible, likely to put a child at risk of sharing a milkshake with the local pedophile. And while there are such people targeting children in the online world ( the stranger lurking behind a virtual bush ), the most likely threat in this sphere is the devil we know, dressed in a school uniform and using social media as just one more weapon in their bullying arsenal.

For some, the neighbourhood presents real and significant dangers that demand a vigilant approach. Keeping a child safe in a community riddled with violence, crime and gangs requires the sort of parenting that in another context would rightly be characterised as helicopter-like. In this case, the whole notion of free range parenting starts to look like something that could only be cooked up by the most privileged - it seems as out of reach for some of us as buying all groceries at the local free range and organic food market is for most people.

Ironically, the quietest suburbs may be the least conducive to the free range parenting ideal. I'm thinking about places where you rarely see your neighbours let alone know their names, and foot traffic is almost non-existent due to the complete dominance of the car, and parks lie dormant. Places where there is no sense that anybody is keeping an eye on your child when your own back is turned, where the silence on the streets is more eerie than reassuring.

While the data tells us that in fact our children are safer than ever, it is the lack of a real sense of community that has driven many parents to the sort of hyper-vigilance that the free range parenting movement has lampooned so successfully. However, throwing declining crime statistics at parents is as about as effective as telling a person afraid of flying that they're less likely to die in a plane than on the road.

When I examine my own parenting I find myself veering wildly between the two extremes, the parenting equivalent of the hybrid car. While I happily allow my 9 year old to take herself to the local playground, I find myself increasingly helicopter-like when it comes to my middle school child. Both the volume of homework and organisational skills required by teachers suggest that significant parental scaffolding is in fact expected.

In a sought-after school district, the educational advantages come as much from a well funded and functioning school system as from the highly involved parent body whose free range tendencies (if they ever existed) fall by the wayside when the homework juggernaut strikes. With continual emphasis on grades rather than learning, education feels like a zero sum game in which my role as a parent is to make sure my child emerges a winner. In this environment, parents can begin to identify a little too closely with Amy Chua, whose memoir Battle Cry of the Tiger Mother describes the extremes of helicopter parenting.

The many decisions we make about our children on a daily basis, whether to hold them tight in a helicopter twirl or throw them onto the stage for a high risk solo performance, are not made in a void. While we might be well aware of the statistics, when we don’t feel part of a real community it is hard to be the lone parent who allows their child to walk themselves to school or play in the park without parental supervision. When education feels more like a race than a journey, it takes a brave parent to allow their child to flunk the test so that they can learn a bigger life lesson.

Whether our neighborhoods are eerily quiet or ridden with crime, it is due to the failure of the community as a whole as much as individual parents that we all find ourselves holding onto our children a little tighter than we should.

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