Give helicopter parents a break, we're not that bad

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Free-range, helicopter, tiger or unicorn? They sound like dance fads, not so-called mothering styles.

For the uninitiated, free-range parents let their kids run free, with minimal supervision, and take risks, while helicopter parents make all their kids' decisions for them, watch their every move and hover around them, like, well, helicopters.

Tiger mothers are a step above again, overly strict and pushing them to excel, while the latest mum sub-group, unicorn mums, are fun-loving non-perfectionists who are mostly sustained by alcohol and don't care what you think of them.

As a self-confessed helicopter parent, I am here to tell you no one gets a worst rap than us.

Ridiculed and maligned, often by those closest to us, we are the butt of all the parenting jokes. Yet, if you ask me, no one deserves to be cut a bit of slack more than the helicopter parent.

You see, being a helicopter parent is exhausting, both physically and mentally.

No one uses the words "easygoing" or "relaxed" in the same sentence as "parent" when describing us.

We are the parents jogging after our children when they are learning to ride their bike, screaming at them to slow down, watch out for driveways, stop before the reach the road, etc.

We are the parents who spend our days doing risk assessments prior to any outing and imagining numerous worst-case scenarios.

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Where free-range parents see a cute dog in the park, we only see bite marks. A tree is not something to climb but a broken arm or skull fracture. Going to the beach for the day is not fun for us. It is a horror stretch of possible drownings, heatstroke and the like.

We worry if our child is too hot or too cold, is hungry or has eaten too much, is spending too much time indoors or not reading enough.

After more than a decade of parenting, is it any wonder I am spent? Or that I fantasise about just giving up and letting my kids do whatever they want, whenever they want?

And so, in the spirit of saving my sanity and raising well-adjusted children who can take care of themselves one day, I am ready to let go, albeit just a bit, and have been taking steps to make this happen.

Parenting experts will tell you the main difference between being a free-range parent and a helicopter parent is allowing your child to be independent.

While our job as parents is to keep our children safe, there is a risk of going too far and providing too much protection (I have been called an overprotective mother more than once), denying them the chance to become independent.

Apparently, the best way to build independence in a child is to help them become self-sufficient, and the earlier you start the better.

Primary school age is a good time to let children start being more independent, whether that is walking a short distance alone to school or a park, or leaving them home alone, maybe with a sibling, for short periods.

But what if I have left it too late? This is where scaffolding comes in.

In the same way you place scaffolding around a building to make it safer and protect those around it, you can provide scaffolding for your child by reducing the risks they may encounter so they can learn new skills and become independent safely.

An example of scaffolding is allowing your child to ride their bike a short distance unsupervised.

This is where the third tip for helping your child become more independent comes in – rewarding responsible behaviour with greater freedom. So, your child rode to the corner shop and back on their bike without incident? Let them go further next time.

Worried about them crossing that busy road? Time for more scaffolding to reduce the risk to their safety by giving them the skills they need to become more independent.

In our case, we did the bike trip with them several times, at first reinforcing the need to get off their bike, look both ways, then cross the road. Then we went with them again, but this time didn't say anything.

When they finally went out alone, we just hoped that all that nagging had sunk in.

While we have a long way to go before we reach the level of self-professed free-range parenting advocate Lenore Skenazy, who let her nine-year-old son catch the New York subway alone, we are slowly releasing our vice-like grip on our children.

We might even let them catch a train to the city one day. After we have accompanied them several times, of course.