The other day I was at the playground with my partner and our 14 month old son. I kept hearing a man’s voice shout over and over, “Emily! Emily!” At first it was simply background noise, but after a while of hearing him I started to wonder what it was about. Eventually I focused my attention on the man and who I am only assuming was his daughter (Emily). Once I became more aware with their situation he sounded more like this:
“Emily! Over here, over here! This way! Emily, look look! Turn it this way, Emily. Now the other way. Look over here! Come here! Sit down. Sit! Sit! Slide down now. Yea, good girl!”
It was yet another situation of Helicopter Parenting, and in this particular instance the parent was heavily invested in leading and being in charge of the child’s play. Unfortunately though, with this much direction from her dad, it turns out to not be much for play at all. Obviously, this man is well-meaning, but I think it’s important to examine our behavior towards children.
Urban Dictionary accurately describes a Helicopter Parent as: “A parent who hovers over their child, regardless of their child’s needs and desires. An overprotective parent who does not want their child to face any difficulty without their parent’s help.”
I could literally write a short book detailing all of the instances of helicopter parenting I have witnessed. Sure, I can chalk it up to it all being unique circumstances (and I am sure there are exceptions), but I see it so much that I know it’s not all unique circumstances. I see it as a play-ground epidemic. I want to be clear: I’m not talking about special circumstances here. Some parents behavior towards their child borderlines on neurotic at best, insanity at worst. Again, it’s obviously well-meaning but I think it’s important to notice when our anxiety and cultural normative ideas are ours and to not project them onto our child. We can realize that we can still be present but in a different way.
On several occasions I have posted on social media about a few times helicopter parenting has merged into my son’s reality and pissed me off. Pissed me off because his play and learning opportunities have been derailed by other (and I’ll say it again) well-meaning parents. Now I am writing a blog about it, so some people may be wondering why I care so much or why this is important to me. The reason is this:
The urge and insistence to have so much control over our children comes from a deep cultural (often unconscious) belief that children are dumb (or not as smart as us) and that they don’t require or deserve the same respect we pay our adult peers. Therefore, children often grow up on some level to be psychologically, emotionally, and even physically stunted. Because this behavior towards infants and kids is so common place in our culture, what is accepted as “normal” adult human behavior and abilities is often below the reality of true human potential. I often hear the argument, “My parents did XYandZ and I turned out fine.”
Yes, we are fine in a culture with depressingly low standards of “fine.”
I don’t mean to sound dramatic or harsh on anyone. I am not perfect. I was not raised perfect. No one is. Not even my own child. What I do know is that we can do better, and part of doing better is cultivating a deep sense of trust and respect for our children. They desperately want it from us. Sometimes their way of asking for it can come out in ways that we interpret as “bad” behavior. Then our image of them is that they are “bad,” so we tighten the rope a little more and the cycle continues. Let’s break the cycle.
Maybe after reading this far you have identified yourself as a helicopter parent. If you find yourself saying, “Yes, this sounds like me, but how do I begin to stop and give my child more freedom,” then keep reading. It might feel difficult at first, unnatural even, but over time I truly believe that you and your child(ren) will be much happier because of it. Shifting the fundamental way we see and engage with our children will inevitably grow you as a person, as well. I came up with 6 ways you can actively start giving your child the respect and freedom he deserves. The first one is:
1.) Let the child lead their own play.
At the beginning of this article I gave the example of the dad who was directing his daughter on the playground. Literally, the only thing you need to do is follow your young child, or know where they are at depending on their age. Play comes naturally for them, especially at such a young age where everything is new. They don’t need us to tell them how to play or given our ideas of what play looks like. To them, play can be as simple as watching rocks in water or staring off into space. It is all important to them and their development. Many times, letting my son lead means we end up in the bathroom or some other place that is no longer the designated play area. We live next to a grocery store that has a children’s playscape outside that we frequent. Our son often wanders (with us following him) from the play area and leads us onto the deck, into the store, he climbs up the stairs and plays with things on the shelf. When he does stay on the playground nothing is off limits because of his age. We let him try to climb the highest surfaces (as we spot him), go up the many steps to the slide and wait for him on the other side of long tunnels. Which leads me to number two..
2.) Spot your child, but don’t hold them.
This is so important because often times we think little kids are naturally wobbly and uncoordinated. To some degree it is true as they are learning fine motor skills, but many times they are this way when we constantly hold them as they are trying to walk or climb and pick them up and put them on their feet when they fall. They can never get a feel for their balance or master the repertoire of motions needed to be strong, steady, and coordinated with their movements. I can give you a couple of examples.
One time I saw a little girl about two or three years old walking through the woods on a trail with her mom. The mom stood behind her, holding the little girl’s hands up above her head, thinking this was giving her balance and ease as they went over rocky terrain. When she would fall her mother would pick her up, put her on her feet and proceed to hold her arms up again. She was essentially controlling all of her daughter’s movements. This little girl didn’t have a chance to fully sense and get a feel for her environment with her own body.
Another thing I see often is with little babies under a year of age and a little older. On the playground, since they can’t climb or sometimes even walk yet, I see their caregiver pick them up as they are attempting to climb the steps and put them on the platform where the slide is, or even sit them on the top of the slide. The unconscious idea is that the baby has a goal (get to the top or go down the slide) and that they can’t so we have to put them there. The thing is, at that age they are learning and exploring their range of movement and learning new skills. All they see is THIS step and they want to learn to master THIS step. Again, by directing their play and assuming the goal or the point of play for the child, we’re keeping them of learning important skills for optimal physical development. I am not exaggerating when I say that I get comments on my toddler’s physical ability daily. He’s so “fast,” “sturdy,” “coordinated,” and “good on his feet,” they say. I don’t say this to brag (well, maybe a little), but to display what a 14 month old is capable of. He already climbs up the steps and goes down the tall slide all by himself. He runs fast and goes up and down stairs without holding the side rail for support, and he loves climbing up and down rocks. Our son has also never worn shoes, which helps immensely with stability and posture, but that’s another blog post. An alternative to holding your child’s hands and body and picking them up to do everything is to be close by and spot them. That way if they fall you can quickly catch them. Also, be the judge on what’s a good fall and what’s a bad fall. It’s okay if they fall a few inches on packed dirt. They learn to fall gracefully.
3.) Learn to be okay with breaking some rules and getting some stares because of it.
Let’s face it, many of us don’t live in a world that values radical freedom for children. When you start to let your child lead more they might start to do some unruly things, let me tell you. They might crawl up from the bottom of the slide rather than slide down from the top. I am serious. I have been very surprised with how many parents take serious issue with the way their child is using the slide. What do we come to the playground for if we can’t loosen up? Making sure a toy or object is used exactly how it is intended to is very important in helicopter world, but you gotta LET IT GO. LET IT GO-OOOO!
All Frozen references aside, if your child wants to crawl up the slide or use a drum as a launching pad then we will all be better off if you could bend the rules a bit. I am not suggesting no boundaries or condoning the destruction of property. You will know the difference.
The other day we were at a children’s museum and a little girl younger than two kept throwing (more like tossing) a fake, plastic egg on the floor. Her mother repeated over and over to her, “Don’t throw it. No throwing. We don’t throw toys.” Really, though, what is throwing it harming? It’s can’t break and she wasn’t throwing it at or near anyone. I think often times the behavior of our children has less to do with them and more to do with what we think other people will think of us. Plastic egg throwing?! Savage, they say! Again, let it go. People’s opinions will be there no matter what. Kids have a lot of energy and sometimes throwing things and banging sticks is a way to release that energy. Our job isn’t to stuff it down and stop them, but rather, our job is to provide a safe environment that is conducive for that behavior, or redirct to another outlet if that action is harmful to anyone.
“Yes, you can bang the stick, but make sure you hit the ground or a tree, not people.”
“Yes, scream, let it out. If you want to scream go outside, or here, scream into this pillow.”
I give examples not to condemn the parents, but because this is one of my favorite topics so I talk about it often, and when I do, people frequently ask what to do instead or what could they do in X situation.
I actually take joy in watching a parent tell their kid to not do something and then not stopping or managing my son when he attempts the same thing. In many instances it gives the other parent permission to relax and give in to their child’s innocent desires. My son likes to throw things. One thing he likes to throw are my glass bottles of essential oils when we are in the bath. I usually redirect him and show him he can throw them in the water where they are safe. Of course, there are going to be times when your child wants to throw or play with something that is actually off limits, like Aunt Debbie’s china plate. At these times it is appropriate to set gentle boundaries.
4.) Give children the opportunity to solve problems on their own (yes, even little babies).
The most common form of helicopter parenting you will probably see is parental intervention in times of conflict. This displays our lack of trust in children as capable problem solvers. It often looks like telling and forcing children to share. I can’t tell you how many times my 14 month old has walked right up to a kid, snatched a toy from their hand, and when the child rightfully attempts to take it back, a parent immediately jumps in saying, “You need to share. Share with the baby.” No, your child doesn’t need to give up the toy he was playing with just because someone decided they wanted it. The same way we don’t need to give up our cell phones to anyone who comes up and takes them from us. Plus, I wouldn’t want my child to think that people have to give up their belongings simply because he takes it from them.
I think we project our deeply held beliefs about ourselves onto our children. The quick insistence to make our children sacrifice their things and always accommodate to others (often shows up as “get out of the way for these people/kids”) is a reflection of many people’s ideas about themselves being in the way or not worthy of having exactly what they want, etc.
I have been blessed with a few occasions where for whatever reason the parents didn’t intervene during a conflict. What happens is truly remarkable and proof of how amazing children are. Yes, even babies. What happens is they either decide on their own who gets the toy and the one who doesn’t want it bad enough happily walks away, or better, they make a game out of it and the conflict turns into play. Sometimes they will be in a deadlock and emotions will run high. I watched my son get incredibly frustrated with a child who was NOT willing to give up his toy. My boy had met his match, and it made him very upset. It’s okay then to step in as a helper and guide, but still important that you aren’t making decisions for them. I think in this particular instance the struggle was about over by the time I stepped in, and I reflected back what was happening. “You both wanted that toy really bad. You are very frustrated now.”
Hitting and biting.
Another frequent occurrence, especially for toddlers, is hitting and biting. Know that this behavior is normal for not yet verbal children or children who cannot yet communicate their wants and needs, or simply, children who are feeling A LOT. While normal, it still doesn’t feel good, so if our child smacks another on the face it can feel like a knee jerk reaction to aggressively reprimand her. It’s important that you don’t immediately fly off the handle because it is easy to rob your child of the opportunity to feel empathy for the person they hurt, and feeling another’s pain is what will make us not want to hurt them again. If when they hit someone and you immediately start shaming, punishing and forcing apologies, then their attention goes to the feelings of shame, embarrassment, or confusion if they are really young. They don’t feel the other person, they just feel like a bad person. We never want our child’s motivation to be from a place of shame and fear. If we can pause and let them see and feel the other child as they cry then they can learn empathy. You can tell them how it feels when they hit, and show the other child your own empathy for them. If you’re close enough to your child and you know they are about to take a swing before they do, then blocking hands and redirecting is helpful, too. This is really hard for many because we can look really apathetic to other parents if we don’t show much action after our child hits someone. We think they are expecting us to punish our kids, and they probably are. Maybe they don’t understand, but only we know what is best for our child. Leading by example and showing other people a radical new way of handling things can be a gift. Also, note that aggressive behavior is sometimes a sign of an unmet need (usually a need for connection) that only you the parent can investigate to see what that is.
Please note: I am not condoning aggressive, violent behavior. I am offering an alternative way to deal with it that might be more effective and that doesn’t break your connection with your child in the process, or having them feeling so bad that they act out and do it again in the future. You always want to foster connection with your child. Disconnection is what drives unfavorable behavior.
5.) Give choices, not demands.
This one is pretty straight forward. It displays respect when we give our children options instead of orders. Let your child be in charge of their life as much as they can be. Just because they are little doesn’t make them less human. Living isn’t something to be earned with adulthood, it is a birth right that starts the moment you are born. As parents we have the job of providing our children with all the information and resources to make the best decisions. If this isn’t something you are used to you can start by asking them what they want for lunch and letting them choose what they wear. Yes, even if the outfit is totally bizarre by your standards. To take it a step further, ask how they want to spend their time. I am pretty radical, so when my son is old enough I will leave it up to him if he even wants to go to school or not. To some people this might be extreme, but this is his life. A person spends a lot of time in a classroom when they choose a traditional schooling route. Why would I force him to spend a lot of his life doing something he didn’t enjoy? Life is happening NOW. Not after high school, or college, or after you get married, or get the career you want. It’s now.
For really little ones giving options can be as simple as asking questions.
“Do you want to put your shoes on yourself or do you want me to help you?”
“Do you want to walk or would you like to be carried?”
You get the idea..
And last but not least,
6.) Start seeing your child as if they already know everything they need to know up to this moment.
This is where we fundamentally shift the way we see our kids. I think the common way we view babies especially, is that they are born with nothing, void of knowledge and wisdom, and it is our job to fill them up with the proper information and teach them the ways. On some level this is true, we do offer the role as their guide. The way I see it is that children are born with everything they need to know and our job is to simply provide the environment to let their innate self, knowledge and wisdom to unfold. They don’t need to be taught how to be. They need space and love to feel safe, respect to foster their confidence, and freedom to be the mystery of who they already are. Meet your child with a curiosity and desire to know who they are rather than assuming who they are and will be and trying to fit them into that box. Curiosity makes parenting way more fun and less stressful. Not to mention, trying to control a free being is exhausting.
Before I end I want to note that this isn’t neglectful parenting. It’s about being there when it’s necessary and not when it’s not. Along with what I talked about here I am also a passionate advocate for attachment parenting, which is the opposite of neglectful parenting. This also isn’t passive parenting. You can still implement loving, healthy boundaries the same way you might with a friend. It’s okay to say no, just look closely at what you are saying no to. Aim to be a yes as much as possible, even if that means you have to negotiate with your child. John Holt says,
“Trust children. Nothing could be more simple or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”