Something has been bothering me about the tempest in a teapot argument between free-range and helicopter parenting, and I finally figured out what it is...
Helicopter-parenting isn’t a thing! Not in the same way that “free-range” is label parents claim proudly. No one labels his/herself as a “helicopter parent.” It’s an insult, a derogatory term meant to raise one style of parenting above all others.
It says, “I am not smothering my kids.” (Translation: Like you.) “I’m fostering independence.” (But of course, I understand if your kids aren’t ready to do the things my kids are). “My kids are smart and savvy and can do more than the average kid their age.” (Your kids are slow and stupid.) “I’m so hip, I don’t even need to parent. My kids are perfect and easy and super cool.” (You, with all your rules and boundaries, aren’t not a cool parent.)
The free-range label is a humble brag. Which is unfortunate, because it really is something we could have an open and honest conversation about—the knowing when to let go, in all it’s forms, understanding how kids build independence and confidence and how we can foster a rich environment where they can thrive, with support and direction at just the right times.
If there is an opposite to free range parenting, it would be attachment parenting. But to acknowledge that, free rangers would need to acknowledge that they are just as much a fringe group. And for a free range parent, an attachment parent is the absolute worst comparison imaginable.
If the conversation is re-framed as attachment vs. free-range, most people would realize they don’t want to claim either title. Most parents are just doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt. Those who see themselves as free range are betraying a desire to set themselves not just apart, but above other parents. Their narrow vision of the world can only be explained in opposition to a supposed phenomenon of over-parenting.
To the extent the “helicopter parent” label is claimed by anyone, it is used as a way to shut down a conversation about where free range ends and neglect begins, a place that reasonable parents know can only be determined on a kid by kid basis. To agree to disagreee, essentially saying, “You don’t know what my kids can handle, so go ahead and call me what you like. I know what’s best for my family and it doesn’t require your blessing. I wasn’t judging you for your parenting decisions, but you didn’t return the favor. So now I would like to stop talking to you.”
If free-range proponents honestly wanted a conversation rather than a debate, they would not allow the issue to be framed as us versus them, free range vs. helicoptering or attachment parenting.
They would talk about the benefits that kids get from independent problem-solving, from being in groups where older kids are teachers, from the struggle of doing it on their own. They would try to figure out how all parents can encourage these things in the way that’s right for them and their kids.
The free-range movement, such as it extends beyond one women and her trademarked brand, really does have something important to contribute to the conversation about parenting, if only its followers would step down from their soapbox and stop caricaturing other parents.
Parents who are genuinely interested in contributing to a conversation about what’s best for kids have a responsibility not to allow themselves to be pitted against other parents. The real conversation we need to have is about how our culture fosters an environment that is different than what we remember of our childhood. To really understand what it is about our communities today that feels less safe. And how to regain the freedom we all felt before anxiety started polluting the air and made it hard for kids (and parents) to breathe.
I’m not saying that there aren’t parents who hover around their children unnecessarily from time to time or who contribute to that anxiety that things are more dangerous today than they were “once upon a time.” Examples are out there somewhere, like urban-myths—the father who called his kid’s college professor on her behalf, the mom who went to college with her kid, or whoever buys all of the contraptions pedaled in the One Step Ahead catalogue, the holy grail of paranoid parenting. They are just as true—but no more true—than the kid who took the subway alone. They are outliers.
Both parenting styles happen when people step outside mainstream common sense with the defense that they have a philosophy. Which is a white, affluent, over-educated way of saying, “You know I’m right because I look like you!” How many black or Latino parents make a big deal out of letting their kids have a little freedom? How free are they to be showy about such a thing? And isn’t the whole idea of kids being off in the world a different conversation if that kid is black and male?
Examples of attachment parenting and free range parenting come across as publicity stunts, unnecessarily dramatic, like a kid who will do anything to be noticed. Back on this planet, most parents have a get-through-the-day-every-day style of parenting. “Helicopter parenting” is not a style of parenting, but more like a verb people occasionally slip into: "Oops, I just helicoptered! Better step away from the monkey bars!”
Only extremists need a name for what they do. But we would all benefit from a conversation about how to create the kind of communities where kids are safer on their own, where the world is made for them to slowly begin to navigate on their own. This is not adversarial. It’s in the interest of all of our children.
From day one, parenting is an exercise is letting go. Every day our children are more and more able to thrive farther and farther away from us. Crawling, walking, crossing the street, going to parties alone, it’s the way of the world, the natural order of things. We take care of them until they’re ready to be on their own.
“The Overprotected Kid,” which was written by Hanna Rosin and published in the Atlantic magazine, offers a great place to start that conversation. One in which we work to build trust among parents as well as confidence in our children. This is not a solo performance art project. The more we create a parenting community where we are all looking out for each other’s kids, not hyper-focused on our own, the less we will be anxious about the world we let them out into. Because they all leave in the end.