When I think of a “helicopter mom" of children my children’s ages, I think of a mom watching anxiously as her child attempts to piece together a puzzle, only to impatiently step in and complete the whole thing for her. I imagine a mom putting her child in one of those backpacks with the leash. I imagine a mom licking her hands and wiping them on her child’s head to smooth down stray pieces of hair and buttoning the highest button on her kid’s polo shirt before walking her into her classroom and unpacking her backpack for her. I imagine a mom arguing with the teacher over any grade lower than an A on her child’s report card, and furiously defending her child in the face of any note home about her child’s disruptive behavior in class.
I don’t imagine myself, someone who has learned better. Someone who tries to observe rather than interrupt or insert herself in her child’s play. Someone who keeps her voice calm and level and reacts nonchalantly to misbehavior. Someone who allows her kids to fail at an activity and suggests they try it again another time if they weren’t able to figure it out. Someone who used to be a classroom teacher and who knows to always side with the teacher, unless it’s something completely egregious.
In fact, it wasn’t until one evening during a visit my mom gently suggested that I might be a helicopter mom. I’d had one too many glasses of wine, and I immediately dismissed it, getting defensive. I’d told her that I would never allow my girls to have a male teacher, and she was shocked. “Don’t you think that’s a little crazy, Shan?” she asked. I explained that no, I didn’t, and that it was just a practical choice. I said that I knew very well that there were plenty of male teachers who were wonderful, but that there were also male teachers who were attracted to the profession because they were pedophiles, so to err on the side of caution, I would just request that my girls be switched to a different teacher if ever they were placed in a class with a male teacher. I said I would explain to the administration that I knew that they likely had great male teachers, and that I would take full responsibility and just say that I was an “anxious parent” (even though, in my mind, I’d only be saying that to try to endear myself to them, when, in reality, I’d be making a perfectly reasonable request). I would politely insist.
But maybe saying I was an anxious parent would be more of a confession than a manipulation. And maybe that anxiety is precisely what makes me a helicopter mom. In Parents magazine, Carolyn Datch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide, defines “helicopter parenting” as “a style of parents who are over focused on their children and who take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.” In the same article, another Ph.D., licensed psychologist Anne Dunnewold, calls it “overparenting.” “It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting.”
1. I yell at my kids at the mall (or restaurant or grocery store). I yell because Violet is running ahead of me, and Harper is following her lead and is now running ahead of me. I would have to jog to catch up, and to avoid that, I am trying to be discreet and just power walk. I say, loudly, "Slow down." I say, "Stop running." I say, "Violet, come here." And when that doesn't work, and once I imagine someone swooping in from around a corner and snatching them up, or a car hitting them when they've run into the parking lot, and me not being able to wrestle them free or pull them back because they are too far away, I panic. That's when I yell, "Stop running right now! I said stop! Stop!" Once I have caught up, I point my finger in their faces and say, "Never, ever run from me again." They always promise they won't, and then they always do it again.
2. I blame myself. When they whine because they haven't gotten their way, I decide that's because maybe I haven't always stuck to the "no" I'd given them, and so they've learned that if they whine enough, they will get their way. Because they are picky eaters, I've decided it's because I gave them some salty, sugary foods down the line, and once they'd had a taste of that, they decided they'd never try any new foods again. If they are really crabby, I decide it's because I haven't created enough of a calming breakfast and bedtime rhythm, and so they are suffering the consequences, or that I am not doing a good enough job being calm, so they are reacting to my mood, which is not always upbeat. I vow each night to do better, to keep in mind all of the things I've learned.
3. I'm too strict. Sometimes the word "no" is out of my mouth before I've really had time to consider it. Once I've said it, though, I try to stick to it, so even if we are in an area where it's okay to run, or even if I know Violet will wait for me on the next block if she rides her bike around the corner, where I can't see her, I've said no, so that is that. I also don't give them enough freedom to make their own choices. I feel like it's enough to give them a lot of food options at dinner and to occasionally pick out what they want to wear, or to pick out what they want to wear from two choices that I've provided, but what about all the other decisions in the day? Is it really that big of a deal if one night they want to skip a bath? Is it that big of a deal if they want to watch more television or stay a little bit longer at the park or at a friend's house?
4. I worry too much. When Violet was at a more relaxed school that didn't focus on academics, I worried that she wasn't learning enough and would fall behind. Now that she is a traditional school, I worry that there is way too much pressure and she will fall behind because she will end up hating school. If I've been too permissive with the TV one day, I worry that they will stop relying on their imagination and will forget how to entertain themselves. (On that front, I also worry that they won't have the ability to think creatively as they get older.) I worry every night that someone is going to break into the house and take them away from me, because, I wonder, how could I be so lucky to have these intelligent, funny, curious, kind little creatures? Will I really be allowed to be so deliriously in love with these kids for the rest of my life?
5. I'm a perfectionist. I read parenting blogs; I consult with parenting experts, sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists about parenting; I continue to set goals for myself based on everything that I've learned. When it looks like the piece of pottery my daughter is holding is about to fall and shatter into a million pieces on the floor, or my daughter has just spilled her juice all over the floor, my first instinct is to gasp. When they continue to not listen to me, my irritation builds and my instinct is to yell or to unfairly punish, just to really send the message. When they hit me or each other, I want to put them in their room and slam the door shut. Sometimes I even want to spank them. But I have learned better, so I try to use all of the tools that I have been provided. I try to make my voice calm, even though it is a struggle. I try to understand their point of view and be compassionate. I try to use natural consequences. I try to limit TV. I try to encourage them to find their own answers or figure it out for themselves, even though they are getting impatient and saying, "Ugh. Just show me how to do this." By setting myself up this way, trying to follow each and every rule I have for myself so that I can be the perfect parent, I fail every day. It does not feel good to feel like a failure every day.
I know what the dangers are to helicopter parenting: You end up with insecure kids who can't do anything for themselves and who are completely entitled. You end up with kids who absorb all of that anxiety and become anxious themselves. You end up with kids who resent you.
But I know I'm doing a lot of things right (hence all the "lay-off," "let-kids-be-kids," RIE stuff that I practice), and I know a lot of my fears are founded. I know I'm well-meaning. I know I love them like crazy and just want the best for them. I know that I have availed myself of so many resources and that I am trying every day to be the best parent that I can be. I also know that, in this day and age, I am not alone. Surely all is not lost. The first step is admitting you have a problem. (Check.) The second step, according to an article called "How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Helicopter Parenting," in Empowering Parents, you need to just deal with yourself, instead of projecting those anxieties onto them. I consider myself pretty self-aware, so I don't think that will be too much of a problem. I know why I am anxious, and I do have some techniques within my grasp to combat that anxiety. So I think—I hope —I am not a lost cause.