The Antidote to Helicopter Parenting

March 28, 2012

Mom & Baby, in New York magazine 4-4-10

A couple Fridays ago, I posted a link to an article in Time by Nancy Gibbs called “The Growing Backlash against Overparenting.” I couldn’t help but notice that Gibbs uses the term “slow parenting” to describe the antidote to “helicopter parenting” — the tendency to over-involvement, over-protection, and over-investment in our kids.

A slow approach to parenting hardly means one is disengaged, laissez faire, or unconcerned, of course, but it seems that more and more people are waking up to a need for common sense, getting back to basics, prioritizing relationships, and letting go of unrealistic expectations.

Not surprisingly, Carl Honore’s book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting is leading the conversation about slow parenting. (I haven’t read it yet, but when I do I’ll be sure to tell you what I think.) Honore’s best-seller, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, remains the leading book on the slow movement and why it’s revelatory for our times.

One of the interesting things Gibbs mentions in her Time article is how the recession has helped parents to step back and reassess their priorities. So many have been forced to scale back on extracurricular activities for their kids and the usual amount of toys; they’ve had to do less, downsize, and simplify. And according to Gibbs, a CBS poll showed that most parents actually like the results — they’re happier and believe their family life is better.

I can’t say I’m surprised.

If there’s a problem in parenting today, perhaps it’s the pressure so many parents feel to be perfect and to find the right formula. But there is no perfect formula for parenting, only principles that can help guide the way. And the application of those principles will look different from family to family, because every kid and adult and situation is different.

Do you agree? And do you think it’s possible to relax and really enjoy parenting, or is it something that’s simply bound to be full of angst and pressure?

Image: Jessica Todd Harper for New York Magazine

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Margaret Cabaniss 1 Margaret Cabaniss March 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I can’t really speak to the article (though it makes sense to me, and I’m curious to hear what others have to add), but I just have to say: I cannot get over that photo. I thought it was a painting at first, but it’s actually a photographed self-portrait of the author of the NYMag article. It’s incredible. And I feel like I’ve seen that exact expression on all my parenting friends’ faces at one point or another…

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2 Zoe Saint-Paul March 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I agree. The photo really struck me so I had to use it!

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3 Ann March 28, 2012 at 5:19 pm

I definitely think it’s possible to just relax and let the angst go. People really do go overboard with activities and all of that. On the other hand, it depends on your temperament, and your child’s temperament. If you’re lucky, they will match.

However, the worrying is a whole other issue…

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4 Jen March 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Agreed about the worry thing. That was something I thought I would be more relaxed about. I never anticipated just how loving somebody so much brought the worry to that kind of level! So, in many ways, I am sort of a “helicopter mom” in that regards (my kid is the most padded one on the sledding hill!). Luckily, as far as the extra stuff, I had to take a hard look at my own stress level early on. I learned the hard way 2 years ago when I thought I HAD to run my kid around to his music, gymnastics, and Spanish lessons (after a busy work days) in order to prove to the world that I am a good mom. I pretty much reached my boiling point and morphed into an ineffective mom. One activity is enough. I need my down time, and luckily I have worked my kid into that. Now, some of our favorite times together is just hangin’ at home playing games, sitting in the hot tub, watching movies, cooking, etc.

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5 Zoe - Slow Mama March 29, 2012 at 10:28 am

I can see myself being overprotective. My kids probably won’t eat solids until they’re 14 because I’m paranoid about choking! I think the scheduling/ busy- ness is easier to change once you face the real reasons for why you think you need to chauffeur your kids around to a gazillion activities.

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6 Sarah D March 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm

I think that pretty much all parenting is fraught with angst, stress and worry, because of the individuality problem : there is no one answer, so you have to find your own, and that can take a while. And once you have an answer for one kid, another one comes along with a different personality, and then the first one grows into a different phase and… The biggest challenge for me, and the source of most of my parenting angst, is having to continually try to hit a moving target.

I absolutely believe that one can reduce parenting stress by not trying to overachieve in the activity department, but stress-FREE parenting? Not possible, I don’t think.

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7 Zoe - Slow Mama March 29, 2012 at 10:23 am

That’s a great way of putting it: “like hitting a moving target.” Not easy! I suppose by the time you get good at it, they’re all grown up.

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Ann Waterman 8 Ann Waterman March 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Couldn’t have said it better, Sarah. You really nailed it.

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9 Kathleen March 29, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I would recommend another great book that touches on some of these themes of slow parenting. It’s called Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Payne and Ross. Great practical advice about how to declutter all these different areas of your family life.

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10 Zoe Saint-Paul April 2, 2012 at 9:49 am

Thanks for the recommendation, Kathleen!

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Ann Waterman 11 Ann Waterman March 29, 2012 at 10:11 pm

We’re really protective of our weekends and evening time so the only thing I’ve enrolled my son in to date, apart from school, is swimming lessons and that’s only for reasons of safety since we spend a lot of time at the pool in summer.

When I was little, my parents enrolled me in a variety of different activities but I didn’t really enjoy any of them — I would have been just as happy playing in my backyard. It wasn’t until I was 7 that I enjoyed more organized extracurricular activities. I’m inclined to hold off enrolling my kids in any organized activities until they are closer to this age or show a real interest in something. I don’t want to enroll them in something just because I feel like I should.

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12 Zoe Saint-Paul April 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

Sounds wise, Ann!

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13 Therese April 1, 2012 at 10:28 pm

Last year, my New Year’s Resolution was to “just be present” with my kids. I often look to your blog, Zoe, for inspiration as I balance the inevitable worrying about these two wonderful people whom I love so much with just appreciating them and being present with/for them. I need to work – I’ve got the only family income – and am also the primary homeschooling parent, so I feel a constant challenge to accomplish all that I need to get done just to keep my job and still be present in needed ways for my kids. So, I’d say that I definitely do enjoy parenting – every single day I have a moment that is the best of my life. At the same time, I worry a lot too – not in a helicopter way (I hope), but because everything does come down to me – I can’t blame school systems or administrators or parents – and that’s hard. But very worth it. And every material thing that we’ve given up is more than repaid in rich, rich living as measured in relationships, time, and love.

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14 Elizabeth April 9, 2012 at 11:55 am

I think it depends on the child more than anything else. I am a very protective parent, but my child’s deaf and blind, so I kind of don’t fit any defintion of parent that exists in any book anywhere. I’m not the parent that they are writing about, so mostly, I ignore the general crowd’s commentary. However, I do have my child involved in any program or activity that I can because I can’t ask him what he loves, what he dreams about, what he’d do all day if he could. Does it mean a lot of running around? Yes, our weekends are crazy busy, but we work full-time so the weekends are our only chance to expose our child to new and exciting opportunities.

In terms of feeling the need to be perfect, well, I think that again applies to non-special-needs families. As a family with a child with exceptionalities, right off the bat you have to decide whether you can or cannot live up to the expectations for perfection or not. I could have my son in therapy for every single hour that I am not working, if I wanted and, if I was the perfect parent, maybe I would. However, I’m not a perfect parent and so I realize that my child is not a perfect child and needs time to do what he wants to do, not just be learning or working on something always. Sure, I need to have him in lots of weekend activities because he doesn’t really know what playing is and it’s important that he learn that we do some activities just because we want to have fun and be happy.

Do I worry? Yes, all the time! I worry that he will fall, that he will run into something, that he won’t know that someone is coming up behind him, that he will get pushed over, that he will hurt himself when he’s feeling a new toy, the list could go on forever. However, I sit back and, unless there is a serious injury, I have to let him learn. It wrings my heart and fills my eyes with tears, but special-needs parenting isn’t for the weak. I want my child to be fearless and learn how to depend on himself, so I need to allow him to fend for himself, even when I want to make it easier for him. I can’t afford for my little one to depend on me. Society’s pretty hard on the disabled and while I’m a bit of a mama bear on steroids when it comes to protecting my kid, that means that I have to protect him from me, too.

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