Whirrrrrr. The spinning propeller of a helicopter makes a deafening roar. It’s tough to carry on a conversation, let alone think.
The image of a “hovering mother” or a “helicopter parent” has come to mean carrying the ideal of being involved with one’s child to the extreme of blurring the boundary between child and parent. A parent who “buzzes” too close takes a risk of harming his child. At risk are the child’s discovery of her own identity, her ability to learn from adversity, her sense of competence and a sense of her parent’s trust in her abilities.
My Own Person
Some parents make the mistake of seeing themselves in their child, to the point of wanting a second chance at childhood. Hannah has a headful of blond curls (which take forever to de-tangle) and a doting mother. Despite Hannah’s preference to build forts with the wood pile and stage battles with her friends and imaginary foes, she is registered for ballet class. The prescribed pink tights, black leotard, and pink slippers are sized and purchased. Mother and daughter make the weekly trip to the dance studio to endure an hour of “boring” stretches, poses, steps, and jumps. Hannah begs each week to quit the class. Her mother, Linda, meanwhile cannot for the life of her understand why Hannah resists. “You’d make such a pretty ballerina!”
Linda would have loved for her own mother to have led her through the magical world of ballet theater. She would have loved to have pranced upon a lighted stage, all eyes upon her golden curls. But wait, it’s her daughter who has the curls. And no interest in ballet.
“Ouch” is Often a Good Lesson
Shelly brings her young three-year-old son to tour a nursery school. The teacher invites them to follow the children out to the playground where Stephen immediately toddles off toward the bottom rung of the sliding board ladder. A couple of four-year-old boys whizz past him to climb up the ladder, nearly knocking Stephen to the ground.
“Oh!” exclaims Stephen’s mother. “Maybe we’re not quite ready for nursery school!” Stephen, meanwhile turns his focus from the ladder to the boys, whooshing down the slide and running a race to the far side of the playground.
Is it being too overprotective to keep a child from bumps and bruises? Yes. Stephen will learn the ways of the playground (he has just had his first lesson), including how to deal with collisions with other bodies. Repeated experiences will teach him what hurts, how to get comfort (nursery school teachers are good for that), and how to avoid what he knows to be painful. A few good scrapes will also teach him that he’s pretty tough, after all.
Emotional pain offers good lessons, too. Twelve-year-old Leila has not been invited to the much talked about slumber party at Asia’s house this weekend. Whether she deserves the snub or not (Asia’s parents may have set a strict limit on attendees), Leila can use the experience to guide her future actions in the “playground” of middle school social maneuvers. It hurts, but a long talk with her slightly older cousin, who has suffered and survived her share of clashes with cliques, is reassuring comfort for her wounds.
“I Think I Can, I Think I Can”
Beverly is struggling to put on her coat to go home from preschool. Dad, watching the frustration mount, can stand it no more. He repositions baby brother Weyan over one shoulder and kneels to push the loose arm into its sleeve. Dad thinks he has spared Beverly a meltdown, but in his haste, he has robbed his child of the victory of getting her own coat on.
Darien is entering the science fair for the first time. His chemistry teacher says he shows a lot of promise as a scientist; he’s thoughtful, persistent, a good problem solver. Though the stakes are high – recognition and scholarship money if his project advances to the statewide competition – Darien’s parents need to support their son (meals, transportation, encouraging words) and not his project. The measure of his success will be based on his own merits.
“You Knew I Could”
Martin has a paper route after school. With a full load of homework, football practice and games, plus household chores, he rationalizes that the daily walk clears his head and boosts his conditioning. Besides, he doesn’t have to ask his parents for money any more.
On the rare occasion that he wants to sleep in after a night with friends, his younger brother is more than willing to be his substitute carrier.
An unexpected conflict with his English teacher throws a kink in the works. Martin’s essay is unacceptable. The teacher will give him until Thursday to do a re-write. While Martin’s parents certainly sympathize with this dilemma – Martin will have to beg and barter to work around all his obligations – they expect him to advocate for his own needs.
A difficult conversation with the coach about perhaps missing a practice leads instead to a chat between coach and teacher. In the end, the teacher extends his deadline until after the weekend’s big game. And Martin got through it without his parents’ intervention. They had no doubt that he would.
By Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist in Annapolis offering individual consultation, counseling for parents and children, and workshops for parents and teachers.