October 3, 2012 | LXXII, No. 27

From “free range” to “helicopter” parenting

In Other Words

A couple of weeks ago, a rather notorious mother in New York, Lenore Skenazy, started an after-school program for children. This is the same mother who, a few years ago, let her then 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway on his own, with nothing but a map and fare money. Her new after-school program is an eight-week course costing $350 per child. All that is on the schedule? Free play in a playground in Central Park with the promise of absolutely no adult supervision. In fact, Skenazy herself will be around the corner in a Starbucks.

Skenazy’s movement, labeled as “free range parenting,” is considered by many to be radical, but I wonder instead if it is simply at the opposite end of the spectrum of the more popular, and even more socially acceptable, helicopter parenting. Is her parenting style just a knee-jerk reaction to a movement she finds overbearing and unsuccessful? Is it a throwback attempt, to a time when childhood was, presumably, slower paced?

In either case, the arrival of free-range parenting is a spark for the always-conversational topic about parenting styles. In many areas of the country, the way you parent your children has become a bit competitive. Whose child has the highest grades? Whose child has the fastest time, got into the best college?

This pervasive competitive spirit among some parents has me wondering. What does it mean to be a successful parent? A child that makes it out of adolescence without bodily harm to themselves or others? Entrance into an Ivy-League school? A well-rounded, happy adult? Is success as a parent even something we can measure, much less compare to others?

In a poll conducted by Vanity Fair last month, a whopping 95 percent of us think we rate either the same as, or better than, our own parents at parenting. What could possibly make us think so highly of something that is difficult at best to measure? Are we that self-assured that we are forming the next generation of super-adults?

In actuality, despite the fact that more and more of America’s children are achieving a higher education, kids are taking longer to be independent. This has even sparked the new term “adultescence” to describe the extended period of financial and emotional support provided by parents before children make the final leap into adulthood. This phenomenon might instead suggest something larger in our society, whether it is the propensity of helicopter parents, over-scheduling of kids, or the long list of other factors that make “childhood” almost unrecognizable to the generations that came before this one.

Free-range parenting leader Skenazy insists that total supervision of children is not only unnecessary, but harmful. When parents hover and interact with children on a minute-by-minute basis, we neglect to let them experience such things as frustration, disappointment, and even anger. She insists that left alone, they will work out any social transgressions and physical limitations on their own.

Here in the coulee, we aren’t presented with some of the difficulties raising children in other places are. There could hardly be a safer place to let your kids go outside and play unsupervised, and over-scheduling is not necessarily something we have to worry about either. But nationally, all these things are a daily presence for many kids in America and it is something interesting to think about. Would you let your children play in a city park unsupervised?

In my short three and a half years as a parent, I’ve found that, like politics, you can almost always find credible information to support your beliefs as a parent. And, like politics, extremism as a parent ends up making everyone around you crazy. Perhaps, for those of us in the middle on the helicopter vs. free-range debate, it is simply another exercise in finding the right balance as a parent. After all, parenting is, if nothing else, about finding a balance.

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