The other day, my two-year-old was painting with (washable) paint. She was using a brush and making big swirls of colour on the paper. “Look, Mommy. A dinosaur!” Typical toddler stuff.
Suddenly, she turned her paint palette upside down and started smacking it against the paper. Envisioning a huge mess, I began to admonish her. Then I noticed that her technique was resulting in fantastic splatters of paint across the paper. I bit my tongue and watched her as she worked, completely absorbed in what she was doing.
The result was (not-so-objectively) beautiful, and I realized that I never would have seen it or seen the look of pride on her face when she showed it to me if I had intervened.
How Helicopter Parenting Happens to Good People
We’ve all observed (or been) the “helicopter parent”: hovering as a child climbs a totally age-appropriate ladder, immediately rushing in to resolve a violence-free conflict, and transporting a much-too-old child in a stroller.
A mom told me that a friend’s son went without most of his lunch his first week of kindergarten because he had never learned to open his food containers.
I totally understand the impulse to protect and shield one’s child—and to protect and shield one’s carpet and hardwood floors.
“Letting kids be kids” seems like a great philosophy for enlightened, progressive parents, until the kids are smooshing tiny pieces of Play-Doh into the sofa or whacking another child with a bat.
Plus, there are safety restrictions on everything nowadays that didn’t exist for our parents and grandparents—making it clear that the world is a dangerous place and we parents had better be vigilant. My grandmother recently told me she used to drive around town with a baby in her lap, a child in the passenger seat and two kids in the back—no car seats. Today, parents are publicly shamed for turning car seats from rear-facing to forward-facing too soon.
Playgrounds today are largely pristine, rubberized affairs where kids have to work hard to injure themselves. (In a recent Globe and Mail article, Alex Bozikovik suggests kids may be better off picking wildflowers and balancing on log bridges.) Many of the toys on the market do everything for children or allow just one way to build or create.
We also feel pressure to make sure our kids get ahead, from the day they’re born. We’re “supposed to” keep them busy with stimulating play all the time, from tummy time and infant massage to screen-free playtime, stimulating books and games, and gymnastics and music class and swimming lessons. The message? You can never do enough for your child.
I’m guilty of hovering and I can see a bit of myself in the Crunchy Mom stereotype. But isn’t it understandable? What with all the pressure and guilt to make sure our children are happy, well-rounded, highly skilled, genius-level, amazing human beings?
How Important Is It, Really?
Experts tell us that being too attentive is just as bad ignoring your child, and since overparenting is now a buzzword in the media, we’re probably in for an era of parents struggling with letting their kids fend for themselves. But how much room should we allow?
For now, I’m striving to be more of a lifeboat than a helicopter—I’m there if you need me, but not always within arm’s length.
Because not only is overparenting no fun for kids, it’s no fun for me. When I’m too quick to say no or I try to structure my child’s playtime by a set of “rules”, I miss out on seeing what she imagines and hearing her often-hilarious conversations with her stuffed animals and dolls.
Of course, kids do need some structure and some help when they struggle. As Catherine Newman points out in a New York Times Motherlode blog post, there’s something to be said for teaching your child—by your own actions—that helping others is a virtue.
I suppose it’s all about balance. I held back as my daughter dipped her garlic bread in her water the other night. (She’d seen us dipping it in soup—why not in water?) Sure, you’re not “supposed” to do it that way. But does it really matter?
She had fun. And what’s more important: that a temporary mess will be made or that my child will learn by doing and I’ll get to watch her be delighted at figuring something out for herself? But do draw the line at, say, marbles in the toilet. (Not cool, kid.)
How important is this, really? is a question I try to ask myself many times a day. Why am I saying no or stop? Is it because my child is truly in danger? Can I just allow her to figure it out on her own?
If it’s not risking her safety (or our plumbing) or we don’t need to be somewhere in the next five minutes, I try to let it go. Not only will she feel a sense of accomplishment from figuring it out herself, but I may also learn something and have a little fun, too. Or at least end up with a pretty cool painting.