Roots & wings: kids need both to grow

When parents stop hovering, children learn to fly

My daughter, age 26, went away to grad school in New York in September and a friend sent me a New Yorker cartoon: there’s a dad and a college kid at a train station. Dad says to kid: “It’s great you’re going away to college. Now we can Skype every day.”

My friend sent me the cartoon why?

Could she have noticed that we talk to our (grown) kids almost daily?

Am I a helicopter mom?

You bet.

Am I proud of it? Is it good parenting?


So why? What keeps us doing it? Fear, plain and simple. We hover out of anxiety. Worrying about our children’s well-being drives our incessant need for reassurance that they’re okay, and our efforts to control their world so that they are okay.

“Am I a helicopter mom? You bet. Am I proud of it? Nope.”

It’s helpful to understand why we hover. September 11th and its associated aftershocks and events, everything from the Madrid bombing to airport security, changed parenting profoundly. World events deprived us of our innocence, took away our general feeling of safety and added a layer of fear for our children. Twenty-four-seven communication, in the form of cellphones and the pervasive Internet, made it easy to stay in touch with our kids whenever and wherever. These two factors predispose us to see that as positive — or maybe not even to question it.

On good days I do something different, because hovering is bad for the kids and bad for our relationship (both present and future — hovering is a gift that keeps on giving). Either helicoptered kids don’t grow up to be resourceful, or they resent our interference and push us away. I get that, but still do it.
Here’s a new motivation to try on for size: let’s, as parents, imagine that we’re taking responsibility for building a better world. At camp we talk about making a better world one child at a time, and this helps guide many decisions. As a lens through which to view child-rearing choices, it is a great clarifier.

When leaping to control our children’s world, or jumping on a white charger to rescue them from (actual or imagined) misfortune, we always have, broadly speaking, two choices of what to do. First is: react or respond. React is knee-jerk. React is emotional. React is mother bear. Reacting leads to helicopter parenting.

Responding, on the other hand, is what you do after you think. Stop-and-think leads to that helpful question: In this situation, when we want to hover, is that the best choice if we are building a better world one child at a time?

Two upsides will result from asking that question. The first, no matter what you decide to do, is that stopping and thinking before reacting almost always results in better decisions. The second upside flows from the answers you give to the question. It’s almost magic: Asking yourself how you could make a better world via this decision has an almost miraculous way of causing better decisions. You don’t hover so much. You give them space to figure stuff out, opportunity to practice the great life skills you’ve taught them, and guess what? They spread their wings and fly, become the strong people we always wanted to raise. Roots and wings: you can’t have one without the other.

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the area of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.

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