Trust Over Terror: How to Avoid Helicopter Parenting and Stop Worrying About Your Children
When our youngest son was nine, he started asking my husband and me if we would drop him off someplace he’d never been before here in New York City, where we live, and let him find his own way home on the subway.
Strange request, but we discussed this, my husband and I, and decided: Okay, let’s do it. Our son Izzy loved — still loves! — transportation. He speaks the language, can read a map, and, frankly, we’re on the subway a lot. It’s not beautiful, but we trust it.
So one sunny Sunday, I took Izzy to Bloomingdale’s department store, which sits on top of a subway station. I left him with $20 for emergencies, a MetroCard, and quarters for the few working pay phones still out there — this was in 2008.
Then I went home one way, he went home, on his own, by the train, and when he came into our apartment, he was levitating. He felt so proud not just that he had made this momentous journey, but that we had trusted him to do it.
I’m a newspaper columnist by trade, so I wrote a piece in The New York Sun, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone,” and two days later, I was on The Today Show, MSNBC, and Fox News, defending myself against all sorts of skeptical talk-show hosts.
The thing that is so strange is that a generation or two ago, this wouldn’t have even been news. But today in America, only about 10 percent of kids walk to school. In fact, in much of the United States, it has become so unusual to see kids out and about that strangers call 911 to report, “I just saw a kid outside.” (For real — here’s the most famous case of this: a family in Silver Springs, Maryland, investigated for neglect, TWICE, for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home from the park.)
There are schools that will not let kids get off the school bus unless an adult is waiting there to walk them home. Parenting magazines tell moms and dads to watch every playdate and step in if they think someone’s feelings could get hurt. The government officially recalls children’s socks with pompons, because the pompon could fall off and pose a choking hazard.
Almost anything a child could encounter — a food, a friend, a sock — is seen through the lens of danger.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So: Right after the subway ride, I got labeled “America’s Worst Mom.” To explain myself, I started a blog called Free-Range Kids with the motto, “Our kids are safer and smarter than our culture gives them credit for.” Then I wrote a book, also called “Free-Range Kids.”
Today, parents who trust their kids with some independence and responsibility sometimes call themselves Free-Range Parents. Four states have passed Free-Range Parenting laws that say it is NOT NEGLECT to take your eyes off your kids — so long as you are not putting them in obvious and likely danger. And about five years ago, Free-Range Kids matured into a nonprofit promoting childhood independence called “Let Grow.”
Let Grow is making it easy, normal, and legal to give kids back the kind of independence anyone over 35 probably remembers. What changed?
In part, demographics: Many families today have just one or two kids, and two wage earners. That means they have more time and money to lavish on each child. They are also the perfect targets for marketers who know the easiest dollar to get from anyone is the dollar of a worried parent.
So they worry us! They worry us that our kids are somehow in danger from things that never posed much danger before. This explains new and strange products like baby kneepads to “protect” our kids when they crawl, and baby spoons that change color if the food in them is too hot.
Most pernicious of all are all the devices that can track our kids. These range from electronic bracelets strapped onto the youngest children on up through phones with apps that can track kids even as they grow up and leave home.
These are radically new tools.
Before now, parents couldn’t keep their eyes on their kids once they went around the corner. Now that they have been granted this magical ability to watch from afar, it isn’t making them calmer, or happier, as the apps promise. It’s driving them crazy. It does this by rewriting every outing as a potential catastrophe: You MUST watch your child because if you DON’T, something terrible could happen.
Even worse, it is making parents believe that, thanks to these new devices, they really are in control. This means that if, God forbid, anything bad does befall their child, it’s all their fault for not watching the child closely enough or intervening soon enough.
Today’s parents, then, are doubly on edge. Always scanning for danger, and always terrified that if somehow their child gets hurt, there will be no sympathy. After all, Vigilant Parent, you were supposed to be in control of everything. You’ve got the tracker. So why did you let that bad thing happen? The traumatized parent is seen as negligent — not part of a great plan no mortal can comprehend.
Technology tells us that there’s really no big difference anymore between being a parent and being God.
What a cruel lie.
So my mission is to try to help everyone, religious or not, reject the push to helicopter parent. The way my nonprofit goes about this is by explaining that kids must have time for free play and for independence — and without these, they suffer.
When kids get the chance to make their own fun, take on responsibilities, and solve some problems on their own — because an adult is not right there, solving them first — they learn to make things happen and roll with some punches.
Let Grow’s two school-based initiatives, both free, make sure that kids get this independence. The first is The Let Grow Project: Students get the homework assignment: “Go home and do something you’ve never done before, without your parents. Run an errand. Make a meal. Take your brother to the park…” When the child succeeds, everyone is transformed: The parents see their child as competent, blossoming — and so do the kids themselves. The project breaks the ice of anxiety in both generations.
Then there’s The Let Grow Play Club: Schools stay open before or after school for mixed-age, no-devices free play. Adults don’t organize the games or solve the spats, so kids learn how to do both. Those are lessons that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Our culture is going crazy with worry. Parents are suffering; kids are suffering. America is suffering. The solution is to start trusting our kids and neighbors and selves, and getting comfortable again with this age-old truth: We are not in control.
Want to hear more? Check out our recent conversation with Lenore Skenazy on our podcast!
Posted by Lenore Skenazy
Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement.