With the beginning of another new school year, I have been thinking a lot lately about this label that has been thrown around for several years now – “Helicopter Parents.” Everybody knows those parents, if they are not those parents themselves. I am most certainly guilty of fitting the description myself. According to Wikipedia, “a helicopter parent is a parent who pays extremely close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions. Helicopter parents are so named because, like helicopters, they hover overhead.” And it doesn’t typically just occur within our kid’s school, both with academics and activities; the helicopter syndrome extends to virtually every aspect of their lives, often from birth until college graduation; sometimes even beyond that in extreme cases. As I look at my middle child who, just last week, began his first year of high school, I have been looking within and examining when and why I became that parent. When did this phenomenom appear? Why did we, my generation of suburban kids turned suburban moms and dads, become so overly protective of our children?
I think what made me really think about it started from a hysterical blog that I read about the difference in back-to-school in the 70s versus back-to-school in 2014. So many of the author’s points rang true, and gave everyone a good laugh in the process. This made me realize that there was also a huge difference in many other areas of life as we knew it then, and life as we know it now. Let’s look at things then and things now.
In the summertime, our parents got up and went to work; my brother and I stayed home, by ourselves. No sitter. No daycare. We were in late elementary and early middle school when both parents worked, and yes, we stayed home alone. We got up, made our own breakfast, and watched cartoons. Now, normally we had to stay inside during the day, not allowed to swim in our pool until an adult was home, unless we had permission to go to a specific friend’s house and mom knew which friend – not that she knew where their house was, or even what street; just somewhere in our neighborhood that we could get to on our bikes. Sometimes we would get permission to ride our bikes to the bowling alley, which was several miles away, and we would have to cross busy Main Street in order to get there. As long as we stayed together, we usually could go bowl as much as we wanted. We rode our bikes everywhere. We stayed outside pretty much all day when we had permission (it wasn’t a bazillion degrees outside like it is now), going in briefly for a snack, for lunch, or for a drink (when we wanted something besides water from the hose). We played kickball at the playground with neighborhood kids – most were our friends, but some we didn’t know and still welcomed to play. There were no cell phones, and we stayed out until dark, when the street lights came on.
During the school year, we either made our lunches and threw them in our metal lunchboxes with thermoses full of either drink or soup. Sometimes we got a lunch ticket for a change of pace. As early as first grade, I walked to school with my brother and our friends from the neighborhood. I didn’t know of anybody’s allergies, if they had them. I was allowed to take peanut butter sandwiches in my lunch, and swap with a friend if I didn’t like what I had that day. My mom typically met my teacher at the beginning of the year Meet-the-Teacher night, and then wouldn’t see them again until an Open House, if then. When I got home, my mom didn’t ask me if I had homework – I just did it. I did homework, ate dinner, maybe watched TV for an hour or so, did dishes, and had a bedtime. I studied spelling words by myself, or maybe had my brother drill me. I brought home report cards, had it signed, and returned it, knowing that if I got a “C” that I would lose privileges; and if I had bad conduct marks (which I ALWAYS did, for talking too much, if you can believe THAT!) then I would lose privileges and/or get grounded. We took standardized tests at school, but our entire academic curriculum didn’t center around them, as far as I can remember.
During the summertime now, parents line up sitters, nannies, daycares, and camps (all that have been background checked, of course) for their children to attend; and even young teens are typically NOT left home alone and to their own devices. Most parents have enough activities lined up all summer long on either side of family vacations that there is little time left for their kids to get into mischief. Sports camps, church camps, theater camps, music camps, you name it – they’re out there. Rec centers have summer camps that involve weekly field trips and multiple trips to city pools and water parks. When we were kids, my mom’s biggest summer expenses for us were shorts/tshirts/swimsuits, and groceries to keep us happy while she was at work. Summertime now, for working parents, is expensive since there is not only the clothes and groceries aspect, but all of these damn camps, too, at usually $100+ each per week long session! Our kids have cell phones, so they can always be in contact with US, along with their gaggles of friends who also have cell phones. And we don’t just send them out the door to play, with a general idea of where they will be, and no idea of when they will be back. No, no. Our kids have arranged play dates, where the parents arrange the time and place, and sometimes they drop them off at a friend’s house but most of the time meet at an agreed-upon location so that they can drink coffee and visit while the kids play. If the kids are older and want to “hang out” with a friend (they are now too cool to say “go play”), we want to know exactly where the kid lives (with an address and preferably phone number), what adults will be there (because no adults = no “hanging out”), and have a set time that they are to return. They are sent out the door with a cell phone that is GPS-enabled, so in the event that they do not return at the specified time we can then track their location to a quarter of a mile. Our kids have computers, or at the very least computer access to a shared device, and access to any and everything in the world online, so we set up Parental Safety filters and restrictions – because while we are cool parents, we know that they have something at their fingertips that we formerly did not possess: the Internet. We watch who they text, who they talk to, how they browse, websites they visit (or try to visit).
Now let’s talk about school. Most parents now don’t just send their kids out the door in the mornings, off to school with a backpack, lunchbox, and a hug; not unless they live fairly close to their school and can be watched for a good portion of their walk. I know that with my oldest, he started riding his bike to school in 2nd grade, but only due to the fact that the school was one street directly behind our house and it took him less than five minutes to get there. My middle child walked to school for the first time in 4th grade, and I walked with him several times at the beginning of the year before turning him loose to walk less than two blocks to his school. With both boys, I knew where the crossing guards were, I knew the folks who worked in the office at school, knew the principals of their schools, and kept in regular contact with their teachers throughout the year. Unlike when I was a kid in the 70s, both of my boys were given planners at the beginning of each year; and it was in these that they would daily write in their homework assignments, and teachers could report any problems or conduct issues. I, in turn, would check the planner after school, make sure that they sat down and did any homework before going to play or hang out with any friends, and then sign the planner before making sure that it was tucked back into the backpack for the next day. After the planner stage of elementary school, they moved into a more digital age, and parents then have access to every class and every teacher online, where we can view homework assignments, test dates, and email teachers with questions or concerns. Unlike when I was a kid and was just expected to do my homework (because NOT doing it and taking a zero was just not an option), today’s parents are now not only keeping up with their own stuff – home, work, bills, groceries, kid schedules, birthdays, anniversaries, family, holidays…the list goes on and on – we are now adding the role of school into the mix. I remember, over the past three years of my son’s middle school time, repeatedly saying how much I hated middle school, yet here I was, feeling like I was doing it again! It got very tiring to look up coursework every day, make sure that he did the work, make sure that he turned the work in, and then regularly check back for grades to make sure he was passing and get him extra help when he was not. My oldest lived with his dad for a brief period during his junior year of high school, and was struggling in some subjects when he first moved there. During this time, his dad sat down with him almost every night to make sure he did his work, and helped him prepare for tests and such. In the course of the past three years while the middle son was in middle school and struggling at times, his dad would often ask me if I was sitting down with him every night to watch him and make sure he was doing his homework. Now I know that I am a hoverer, but my answer most of the time was “no.” I know that this is not a method that helps our kids prepare for life in college, so no, I will not sit with him and make sure that he is getting it done. He is at the very beginning of high school, and he has many tools available to him to succeed: a laptop that is required at his school, a website that his teachers all access and use to post notes, homework assignments, deadlines, grades, etc. I can log on under his name and check these things at any time as well, so if he doesn’t turn something in and gets a zero, I will see it. This is an opportunity for me to step back, land the helicopter for a bit, and let him step off the ledge himself. He is already learning to take notes in class, and how to go and check for assignments for himself. These four years are what will prepare him for college – because his mama will not be holding his hand and making sure he takes notes and turns in his term papers or studies for his midterms.
So from my childhood to now, when did this huge shift in parental involvement take place…and more importantly, why? Of course, as technology has advanced, so have we who became parents during that time. But, there are other things that happened when we were young that hopefully don’t happen as often now under the watchful eyes of all those helicopter parents. You know. Those things that nobody likes to talk about. Kids were left alone a LOT back in the day. Bad things happened. Girls were molested by family friends, by family members; raped by classmates or trusted adults. So were boys. And as we grew up and dealt with things that happened to us or to our friends, we declared within our own minds that those things would NEVER happen to our children, come hell or high water.
We were a lot more grown up back then, or so we thought we were. Kids would sneak around and steal their parents liquor and drink – I mean young kids, too. I was probably in middle school when I first drank, while at a friend’s house and when her parents weren’t home. I would sneak liquor into my Coke when babysitting. I was twelve when I had my first cigarette, also while at a friend’s house, with smokes stolen from her parents. I cannot, in my wildest imagination, picture my kids doing either of those things at the age of twelve! I have always regretted that first cigarette, because it started a fifteen year habit that was very hard to kick; but I did it for the sake of my child.
Maybe it is just me, and maybe the helicopter parent wasn’t born from dysfunction. Maybe, for some, it came from a childhood of neglect or very little parent involvement in their lives. Who knows? I hope that my hyper-vigilance towards my children has hopefully paid off in more areas than done damage. I feel confidant that neither of the boys grew up without being touched or molested by anyone, and our toddler girl should never know the psychological and physical damage from that either. I know that the oldest toyed with smoking for a while, but am grateful that he put it down and walked away from it. And I know that he did some teenage drinking, but I am forever thankful that he was at least smart enough to not drive and hurt himself or anyone else. It is so scary to think about all of the things that our kids have access to out there, and it is so hard to NOT be a helicopter parent. If we can get them through childhood and adolescence relatively unscathed, somewhat educated, responsible and respectful, and a decent human being…then we have done our jobs and can call it a success. It’s hard to let go and let them fall, screw up, and figure things out on their own.
Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to go check for assignments online…