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October 5 2015

PJ Parenting Roundtable: Helicopter or Free-Range Parenting?

PJ Parenting
Julie Gunlock

Every week PJ Parenting writers weigh in on parenting issues large and small and you have the opportunity to share your insights in the comments section below. We’d love it if you’d join us for a cup of coffee and some great conversation!

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Question: Is your parenting style helicopter or free range? What led you to that decision?

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Kristina Ribali: I believe the first time I heard the term “helicopter parenting” was around 2000 when I read Parenting with Love and Logic, which, by the way, I highly recommend. The term, as I’ve come to understand it, means to hover over your children, swooping in to rescue them anytime they’re in a situation or predicament that may cause them harm. If my understanding of the term is correct, I’m not a helicopter parent and I believe that style of parenting is incredibly dangerous and leaves children ill-equipped to deal with the realities of life.

I would say I’m definitely more of a “free range” parent, but that term doesn’t connote an image of safe boundaries to me. I agree with the general principles behind this parenting style but I don’t call myself a free-range parent.

I’m logical and want my children to be independent and confident and to learn the realities of life in a safe and loving environment. Your life is determined by your choices. Sparing kids from the natural consequences of those choices creates children who are detached from reality and who will blame others for their problems instead of owning up to them and changing their ways.

I say this realizing some people will think I would allow my child to be run over in the street in order to teach them a lesson, and if there are people who believe this, they’re delusional too and don’t know me or the depths I’d go to in order to protect my kids. A safe and loving environment is key. Set boundaries you will stick to and that also allow your children to see the natural cause and effect of their choices.

What if your child doesn’t want to wear his coat, regardless of you telling him how cold it’s going to be and that he’ll need it? You can nag him to death or threaten to take away a toy, or you can give him the only choice acceptable to you: to wear it now or take it with him. If he gets cold enough, he’ll put it on. He likely won’t tell you he needed it and that’s okay. The point was made.

Safe and loving, logical and practical. I don’t know if there’s a catchy term for that parenting style, but it’s mine.

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Julie Prince:  I am something in between. I am raising my children with the old-school values and wisdom that were passed on to me by my parents and grandparents. Some examples: respect your elders, how and why we salute the flag and our service men and women, how to save 20% of your earnings, always eat dinner together, a boy should grow up to be a gentleman and a girl a lady, fear God, love and appreciate our country, to name a few. I am now seeing the fruits of my labor because they say to me quite often, “Mom, you were right.”

A book that I would recommend to every parent is Generation iY by Tim Elmore. It truly is an amazing tool for parents.

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Brianna Sharbaugh: Deciding if my parenting style is more “helicopter” or “free range” is not an easy task. I strive to avoid extremes in most areas of life, but instead try to find a balance that fits with my biblical convictions and the end goals we have for parenting. Ultimately we desire that our child (and any future siblings he may have) grow to be respectful, hard-working, virtuous and faithful to what God has called him to do.

We believe in letting children experience age-appropriate natural consequences whenever possible. Obviously, when safety is involved, we step in, but on smaller things we allow our son to incur the natural consequences for his actions. These are teachable moments and learning by experience is the most powerful way to help kids truly understand a lesson.

Because our faith is instrumental to everything we do, rather than helicopter or free-range parenting, we look for ways to point to the good news of what Jesus has done for each of us on the cross. We recognize that we cannot change hearts, but have the task of training our precious little man to know right from wrong and to wisely act on that knowledge. My biggest Mommy thrill right now is when my son takes me by the hand and leads me to what he wants me to experience with him. As his Momma, I view my job in the same way. Being there to guide and direct him, but also giving him room to learn and discover on his own.

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Megan Fox: My parenting style has evolved over the years. With my first I was wiping down every surface with disinfectant and terrified of germs. I made her baby food and she didn’t have a hot dog for years. I even made her wear a hat inside when she was learning to walk to insulate her head from the inevitable falls. (We called it her helmet.) Then came number two and my standards began to fall. A dropped paci could be wiped with a wet wipe and popped back in. Gone were the disinfectant cloths and jarred baby food, and hot dogs were a regular staple.

But by number three I have no more standards at all. Yesterday at my daughter’s 6th birthday party, my baby was sitting in the yard watching the chaos chewing on a tree branch. Someone asked me if I wanted him to have it in his mouth and I looked at him and shrugged. The dog does it so….it’s fine. Didn’t cave babies use sticks for teething? Paleo-everything is in, right? Baby-proofing? We don’t do that. A tumble down the stairs usually teaches them not to go head first and regardless of how diligently you gate your stairs, a determined baby is going to find a way over or through it and take a tumble. Why prolong it? In my experience the ones who fall figure out fast that it’s unpleasant and they stop doing it. It is better to teach “NO” quickly. Outlet covers are my one indulgence in baby-proofing because my son is actively trying to electrocute himself. But cabinets? Who has time for that? I usually end up moving anything dangerous up higher and let him go through the cookie trays and Tupperware on his level.

For my older kids, hovering is a problem because I want to be a free-range parent and let them go and explore, but there’s a part of me that can’t be comfortable when they are out of my sight. Although God tells me to be anxious for nothing, there is a built in “what if” fear in all Mommies that is so hard to overcome. If there is a large group of kids together playing around the neighborhood, then I’m more apt to let mine join in. But these days that doesn’t happen very often. Gone are the days of roaming packs of feral kids. Everyone is locked up inside and thoroughly sterilized and terrorized into not going too far, so if you do let yours out they’re the only ones. But there’s safety in numbers! If more of my neighbors would let their kids out, they’d all be safer. It takes a village, people!!! Normally there are more kids out and about, but this year it seems everyone is on vacation all the time (including us) and so there have been fewer kids roaming the street with friends. I want my children to have the kind of childhood I had, where we wandered until the streetlights came on, poking things with sticks and eating lunch in a different house every day and drinking from the hose, but when other parents are busy helicoptering, those of us who want to back off…can’t. Back off, people! Let your kids out!

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Susan L.M. Goldberg: Megan, the stick story is hilarious. You remind me of that woman in that commercial…Purelling everything for baby #1, handing baby #2 to a dirty auto mechanic so she can get her checkbook out. Love it.

I’m a Jewish mother. This means my kid will naturally be over-fed, over-cuddled, and over-protected. I can’t help it. It’s built into my system. Here I am, sitting in the circle, munching on babka and drinking a decaf while proudly admitting, “Hello, my name is Susan and I am a bona fide Beverly Goldberg Mother.”

Helicopter parents can’t hold a torch to me. If any schmuck ever decides to treat my baby badly, there will be hell to pay. A teacher yells at my baby in school? They’ll get holy hell from me, just as the guidance counselor who ripped me a new one in sixth grade for asking a simple question got hell from my own mother. I don’t need to put pressure on college boards to accept my baby. He’s already so smart, so perfect, so MENSA-worthy that any college admissions officer that didn’t accept him wouldn’t be worth his time. And I will certainly make that known to all parties involved.

Free-range parents don’t hug enough. Walking home alone? With all those perverts out there? Sure, by the time I was 10 I was walking to school with friends …while my mother watched from the driveway.

“Put the baby down,” my husband has already advised. “He’ll never fall asleep in his own bed if you keep cuddling him.” Sure, I know he’s right…but my heart! My stomach! The agita! Five minutes of crying is enough to drive me to Tums.

Naturally, my baby will feel the pressure to become a doctor or a lawyer. Of course he’ll feel expected to get at least a master’s degree under his belt. He won’t accept anything less than perfect success in whatever he encounters and he’ll work hard to get it. Why? Because he’s got a Jewish mother who knows he can do anything and be anything, even if it means working his tuchus off to achieve it. We wandered out of a wilderness and built a nation. You don’t do that by sitting on your butt in front of the TV.

I don’t need modern parenting labels to tell me how to raise my baby. I’ve got a Bible for that. To paraphrase Walter Sobchak, 5,000 years of beautiful history from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you better believe my kid’s got a Jewish mother. Critics be damned, I’m the best thing since chicken matzo-ball soup.

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Megan Fox: The stick thing…100% true. My husband said to me all panicked after the party, “Every time I turned around the baby was unsupervised!”

I said, “Unsupervised how? There were 60 people in our backyard! Surely one of them would have noticed if he was in serious danger!” He survived, by the way, and probably ate more than a few bugs. By number 3 I’ve given a lot of it up to God Almighty because He knows I CANNOT do this alone.

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Paula Bolyard: My #2 used to eat gum he found on the bottoms of tables. The conversations with my husband went something like this:

“Did you give him that gum?”

“No.”

“Huh.”

One time, on a junior high mission trip, he picked something off the bottom of his foot and ate it in front of a group of about 30 grossed-out junior high kids. (Let me tell you, it’s hard to gross out jr. high boys!)

But I am not exaggerating when I say that kid (now 21) almost never gets sick now. He rarely gets a cold, almost never has to go to the doctor, has never had surgery — nothing. I think he just built up an immunity to literally everything before the age of three.

Does this mean we were free-range parents? I guess that depends on how you define the term. I once heard a veterinarian discussing free range vs. caged chickens. I had always assumed that free range was the way to go because freedom always sounds better than boundaries. Chickens should be allowed to roam around in the yard scavenging for whatever it is chickens like to eat, right? The problem is that chickens are not very bright. They have brains the size of peas and they don’t know the difference between Decon rat poison and healthy chicken food. In many ways, the veterinarian said, caged chickens are healthier — or they can be if the owners feed and care for them properly — because their diet is controlled and they’re protected from predators like raccoons and coyotes.

While we would not have considered ourselves helicopter parents, we were definitely protective, especially when our kids were young. Like the chickens that didn’t have the mental capacity to sense danger, we felt it was important to protect our kids from things like perverts in men’s rooms, pornography, violent videos games and movies. Our kids watched very little TV when they were little and we also kept a careful watch over who their friends were (because they were homeschooled, it wasn’t that difficult). At the same time, we worked hard to fill their lives with good things — teaching them about the Bible and our Christian faith, having our social lives revolve around church friends and activities, participating in community sports leagues, etc. We were never the “drop the kids off and run” parents. Instead, we found ways to do things together as a family.

But even though our kids were well-supervised when they were young, we definitely made a point of letting them experience the natural consequences of their actions and we certainly never hovered or treated them like fragile little snowflakes. Kids are supposed to get dirty, skin their knees, break things, burn their fingers, and bonk their heads and we rarely intervened unless there was a clear and present danger — like if someone was about to sever an artery or break a femur. “Rub some dirt on it” or “Man up, you’re fine” was usually the response to a minor boo boo. And our kids knew unequivocally that if they ever disrespected a coach or other adult we would probably take the adult’s side (and they would be facing additional consequences at home).

As our kids got older and demonstrated that they were reliable and trustworthy, they earned more freedom, which was doled out in stages. When they began to show discernment, we let them have more leeway in choosing their friends. When they showed us we could trust them to be out with friends unsupervised, they actually had a great deal of independence — to the point that they never even had curfews in high school. “Just let us know what time you plan to be home and call if you’re going to be late” was sufficient because they had earned our trust and we knew they weren’t doing anything we wouldn’t approve of.

Kids are born helpless. They depend on their parents to teach them right from wrong, but also to protect them from bad — and evil — things they’re not capable of understanding or avoiding on their own.

Kristina Ribali: The stick story reminds me of the time my kids were playing down the street with three other kids. They were only four houses away from me when one mom knocked on my door.

“Do you know your kids are down the street unsupervised?”

I replied, “Yes, I’m aware of where they are and who they’re playing with and their mom is inside the house just 20 feet away from them. Are they doing something unsafe or misbehaving?”

“Well, I think it’s entirely unsafe to have them outside without a parent. Something could happen to them.”

It took every ounce of strength I had not to lay into her and tell her she’s the kind of parent that never allows her kid to be a kid. I have lived here for 10 years and have never seen her daughter outside of the house. She doesn’t play sports or attend church. She clings to her mother’s side day in and day out.

Meanwhile, my kids are oftentimes gone for long stretches at a time, checking in with me by phone or popping in, bringing friends in to get a snack or a drink and enjoying their childhood. They’re older now, but even when they were small I gave them opportunities to prove they could be trusted, to play and interact, to problem solve without me there. They seldom let me down.

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Leslie Loftis: I once got a critical phone call from a mom who, in her nervousness in confronting me, admitted that she had seen my 5-year-old daughter do something “risky” when she looked up from her phone…in the car behind mine…in the street in front of the school…at pickup time…while we were moving. Yep. She was checking her phone while driving and thought to criticize my mothering behavior.

For the record, my daughter was leaning out the window to wave to a friend. She was obviously in a booster and leaning forward in her seat belt, i.e. not still secured in a 5 point harness. The mom called, assuming that she was ratting out my nanny for lack of supervision. She was stunned to learn that it was me, not a nanny driving. We were going maybe 10 mph at the time. It might have been a problem if cell-phone mom had rear ended us…

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Julie Gunlock: Yes! It’s that exact type of mom that tests my commitment to free ranging.

As a devotee of the free-range movement and a certified groupie of the founder of the movement—Lenore Skenazy–I try really hard to free-range parent, but it isn’t easy. I’m a bit of a nervous mom and I constantly feel the need to apologize on behalf of my kids (not a good habit, I admit).

Being a parent who is quick to apologize makes it difficult to let go because I always feel the need to monitor my kids’ play—not because I’m worried about the risks my kids might take (I encourage risk taking) but because I worry that other moms and dads (the helicoptering type) might freak out because of something my child does.

The stick story reminds me of a situation I face almost daily.

My kids aren’t interested in playing in the safe and staid playground attached to the school. They choose instead to play in a tree-lined field adjacent to the school. Sticks are a big part of play. They use them as swords, machetes, and as various other props during their make-believe adventures. When other children wander into the space, I often hear the voice of a hovering mother say: “Now, we don’t play with sticks” or “Put down the stick! You could hurt someone.”

It infuriates me because naturally, I then feel the need to tell my boys that sticks are off limits for now…at least until the nervous, stick-hating mom leaves the area.

Despite these helicopter parents, I do my best to free my kids so that they can develop the coping and decision-making skills that are so important as adults.

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Michael T. Hamilton: I hate to say it, but we are totally helicopter parents. I would have denied this until viewing a clip on PJ Parenting of the so-called World’s Worst Mom describing her rationale for things like letting her 9 year old ride the Manhattan subway alone. She appealed to statistics, the sheer improbability that a preventable kidnapping will occur, with or without a guardian present. We hear about kidnappings all the time, but that is because they are exceptional, and the news reports the exceptional rather than the mundane.

This argument is asinine for two reasons. First, however slim the chances of a kidnapping, I am sure the statistics would show the chances overwhelmingly greater among unsupervised children. Second, protecting your child is binary, not statistical. Either you fail or you succeed. No matter how infinitesimal the probability that your child will be kidnapped while you’re not looking, the loss of your child would be ineffably devastating for you, and God only knows how terrible for your kid. If you can be 100 percent certain of preventing that, why wouldn’t you be?

Achieving 100 percent certainty that you are doing all you can to prevent fruitless harm from coming to your child is not premium parenting, it is parenting.

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Rhonda Robinson: It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone chooses helicopter parenting as a style by conviction. It’s more like a default setting. All good mothers cling to their newborns—hover and protect them. Free range is more of a deliberate parenting philosophy—most likely a backlash from the over-domineering culture that has emerged.

My parenting style has elements of both. I seldom put my babies down. Toddlers were never left alone. They are a danger to themselves. These are people who eat rocks and spit out peas. They don’t get to run their own lives. I never put guards on staircases. Instead I taught my babies how to climb up and down them as soon as they had an interest. I also taught them all how to get down off a couch and a bed. My boys climbed to the highest branches. They built tree houses with power tools. They played and hiked in the woods—unsupervised.

Both parenting styles are appropriate at some stage. One continued too long is crippling, the other too early is neglect. The art of being a good parent can’t be summed up in a style. It grows with the child.

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Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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