Against Helicopter Parenting: A Story

Lenore Skenazy (of Free Range Kids) and Jonathan Haidt (Of Heterodox Academy and also previously appearing on this blog) have the Cover Article on an upcoming edition of Reason Magazine.

The article is, in many respects, a distilling down of the larger body of work on overprotective parenting and combatting it. Not that I find that to be a bad thing, people who aren’t as well read about it as I am need a good primer. And this is a good primer.

I’m somewhat conflicted myself on the issue, though admittedly shaped by strange personal experiences. Coming across a young girl (maybe 5?) who had fallen off her scooter and was 100% out cold, while her friend cried over her thinking she was dead may make one wonder where the proper balance lies between “Free range” and “overprotective.” But I digress.

Overall, I find myself at least amenable, probably more accurately: “in agreement” to the general thrust of the arguments, even if I may disagree in a few places with how far we should take them. Indeed, to some extent I engage in trying to actively avoid helicopter parenting even with my almost-3-year-old.

Sometimes this has…suboptimal outcomes. Not bad, just learning experiences on both ends. Just a few weeks ago I walked to the back yard to grab a sprinkler while my daughter played on our front porch (she loves the pumpkin we got her which sits out there.) She took the 90 seconds as an excuse to take off running down the middle of the street, which for a 30-inch toddler in a neighborhood of SUV drives that don’t understand why the speed limit in a subdivision is 25mph, is not really something you want happening. It was also something she hasn’t done before. Oh well, I’ve learned she’s not old enough to be left that close to the street yet while I’m out of visual range.

Overall though, it’s worked pretty well. The freedom my daughter feels not being constrained to a stroller or cart or one of those leash things, means that as long as I have patience she’ll usually tag along close enough and not cause too much trouble that I can get grocery shopping done without too much fuss. (Though if we’re in a hurry: into the cart you go, like it or not!) My wife actually joked that I had her trained so well that shopping is a one person job again.

Sometimes though things don’t go as well, but not because of my daughter, as much as people are stupid and annoying. Case in point: A trip to the zoo a few months back. My daughter loves the zoo, mostly for the train that runs around it, but also for the goats in the children’s zoo.  Occasionally she cares about some other animal or the carousel. We bought a membership, so we try to go about once a month or so during the spring/summer. (Summer being what it is in the Midwest, and the Zoo being 30 minutes away, that’s about all I can muster without feeling rushed.)

At the zoo, I take a similar approach as I do at the grocery store, except that I allow her even more freedom since there aren’t jars of pickles she can knock off the shelf. Often she’ll wander about 5-10 feet behind me. I look back every so often to make sure she hasn’t darted down a different path. Being almost three and not understanding “train crossings” yet, I stay closer when we approach those, to avoid being the reason the train gets shut down.

So: average day at the zoo, daughter is getting a bit tired, we start heading to the exit. There she is that 5 or so feet behind me when we get overtaken by a gaggle of women also making their way to the exit. This sudden crowd is somewhere between common and uncommon (we go the zoo early so it’s not too crowded but there are still groups) and my daughter will tend to do one of 2 things. Either she’ll get spooked by the sudden crowd and either stop or backpedal a bit to drop out of it or she’ll speed up to get closer to me (and drop out of it.) Both her mother and I hate crowds, so it’s not surprising she wouldn’t like them either.

Instead of this normal thing, something entirely unexpected happened. The gaggle of women intentionally surrounded my daughter, effectively trapping her. They started shouting “oh you’re lost! Who’s not paying attention?!” and “Who’s kid is this? Where’s your mom!?”

Obviously this freaked my kid out quite a bit. She’s walking, a crowd appears and suddenly all avenue of escape is, quite literally, blocked. Meanwhile, despite being less than 10 feet away, they’ve circled the wagons to the point that even shouting “it’s my kid” I’m having trouble getting through to get her out. When I did get to my (now teary-eyed) kid after about 30 seconds or so I was told “well, she just started following us! She must have lost you!” No, she was following me, towards the exit, where you’re also heading. Different thing entirely and certainly not lost. But you could tell they had already decided it was a horrible error for me to let my kid walk 10 feet behind me.

Now, I’ve talked before about the weirdness of being a stay-at-home dad. No doubt that played a part here. This gaggle couldn’t make sense of the dude with the toddler in the middle of the week, so despite relative proximity (and the fact that my daughter looks like a clone of me) I must not be her parent, therefore she must be lost. Secondarily is the overprotective nature of parenting today Skenazy and Haidt describe. I wasn’t holding my kid’s hand at all times, ergo my kid must be lost, no other option is possible.

Skenazy and Haidt have a huge hurdle ahead of them no doubt. They won’t just be working to change laws, but pushing back against an entire culture of moral busybodies that think that a 10 foot gap at a place designed for families is a danger.

I wish them luck, we’ll all be better off if they succeed.

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