Parenting FailsParenting Styles

Parenting Without A Tribe

I wanted to write a post titled In Defense of Helicopter Parenting but then I realized that I’m actually not much of a helicopter parent. I only hover when safety is a concern, and my goal is to avoid homework supervisory duties as much as possible. Still, I wanted to articulate my response to what for a while seemed to be the near constant message that I should calm the fuck down and drop my kids off in North Wales so they can set things on fire.

I can’t calm down — at least not without a lot of medication — and my kid doesn’t even want to go down the street by himself much less take public transportation. Maybe my daughter will be more adventurous but, for now, every time someone shares a piece celebrating the virtues of the self-reliant child, I kind of roll my eyes. Because while I agree that the goal of independent kids is admirable, I can’t change my kid and I can’t change who I am as a parent. And I think that’s probably just fine.

photo by flickr user Manuel Gonzalez Noriega
photo by flickr user Manuel Gonzalez Noriega

It’s not that I have a problem with the Free Range philosophy. I agree that we shouldn’t criminalize parents for making what are reasonably safe choices and, again, I think the broad goal of fostering independence is fine and dandy. But like any other parenting philosophy or method — I question the extent of its value. Does the philosophy enlighten you or does it just resonate (or not) with what you’re already feeling? Can we ever stop talking about how we should be parenting?

photo by flickr user skokie
photo by flickr user sookie

What you need to know from a parenting book or philosophy can usually be boiled down to a solid one page from which you can feel free to pick and choose as you please. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is great for its explanation of how baby sleep patterns change week by week. Happiest Baby on the Block has those helpful 5 S’s. I used the Ferber method but I didn’t read it cover to cover. Why would I? The actual method is covered in a page or two. And if you think Ferber is the Pol Pot of pediatric sleep, just skip it. Some of you may remember that New Yorker article from forever ago where Ferber supposedly “recanted” an earlier opinion about co-sleeping. Ferber was just acknowledging that his method isn’t an exact science. If you don’t want to sleep train your kid, then don’t. I’m sure they’ll sleep eventually. For the CTFD fans, calm the fuck down about calming the fuck down. Some of us like to worry. And I come by it honestly — my mother worried all the time about her kids and that was back in the 1980s!!

photo by flickr user shanntastic
photo by flickr user shanntastic

I hate the way every idea about parenting comes with a clever title or — dare I say it — a brand? Don’t tell me Lenore Skenazy’s kids are free range. She lives in Manhattan. When I first told my dad about attachment parenting, he scoffed – as opposed to detachment parenting? To wit, are my kids factory farmed? Independence is one value amongst many. I worry about the quality of my kid’s education more than whether or not he can bake cupcakes better than a French toddler.

Perhaps I’m just feeling lost in a world in which every parent seems to have found their tribe — homeschoolers, free range kids, Tiger moms, atheist parents, elimination communication enthusiasts…I’m just not so sure that any of us have the right answer but perhaps I’m wrong. Fire starters of today might be the visionaries of tomorrow. I guess my kids and I will have to console ourselves with a prescription for Xanax.


Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

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  1. I’d never considered the various parenting styles in tribal terms, but it does ring quite true now that you mention it. My main objection to these various pronouncements on parenting is the implication and/or assertion that a one size fits approach exists.

    Children are individuals and parents are individuals. There is no single right or wrong way to bring up kids. In our case we are muddling through as best we can and I honestly think that this is the most that anyone can hope to do.

    1. We’re all individuals, including our different kids. So many parents think they have it figured out based on their one kid, or even their two kids with similar personalities, but you don’t realize how limited your experience is until you have another kid with an entirely different personality and have to figure it all out from scratch. I mean, more or less. Luckily we’re all human.

  2. I think there’s a very broad range in reasonable choices. And some things work in some kids and some in others. Because, and I often feel like many people forget that, children are not a car with machanical parts or a computer with a sophisticated algorythm.
    But still, with some people I think they’re doing their kids a disservice. I’m a teacher-to-be (and a teacher for adults for a bit of a living) and seriously, especially in the more privileged schools I see lots of kids who are incompatible with independent life. Children who in 8th grade complain that they didn’t get breakfast because their parents were still asleep in the morning (because that’s apparently a crime, especially when you’ve been working late. Or when you simply have a day off.) Or recently in a school project where some of my fellow students prepared Spanish tortilla with a 7th grade. You wouldn’t believe how many 13 yo I taught how to peel potatoes that day. Or the 14 yo who told that there was a beetle in her bed and therefore her mother had to put on fresh sheets. Or all the parents who would drive their middle school kids into the classroom if they could…

    1. I wonder how much of the issue is independence and how much is responsibility. To me, handing your kids 5 bucks so they can go down the street and buy themselves a croissant is nice but limited. Getting my son to take out the trash, help out with dinner, help his younger sister, etc. — those instill a sense of responsibility and I can get on board with that.

      1. I think it’s both and both is needed, because in the end going to a shop, buying things, getting a sense of how much money is worth are skills, too. But yeah, I think many of those kids (very privileged ones, AFAIKS) have lots of liberty, but not the skills to be actually independent.
        There’s a story my aunt, who works in a bank, once told me. It was about a youngish (early 20s) couple who came to her because they were in financial trouble. My aunt looked over their accounts and was a bit confused: They both had good jobs, you could see that their rent was well within their range, no big monthly payments, anything. They had a lot of money to spend on things like food and clothes and all that stuff, so she asked them what on earth they did with all the money? Well, food? How come? Nobody spends that much on food! Yeah, well, did she have any idea how much it cost to go to a restaurant almost every night? Because they’d moved out any neither of them had the faintest idea about how to cook…
        So, yeah, it’s being responsible for yourself in the first place (like getting dressed, making your own breakfast, changing your sheets, putting away your clothes. Those are the chores my kids do) and then doing your share of the joint work, ike helping with dinner, laying the table etc.

  3. I thought all the discussions on helicopter parenting were funny exaggerations, until I have seen parents dragging their children away from the slide so that they can go on the swing. I mean, what?

    1. I’m sure there are plenty of helicopter parents out there although I rarely meet any in real life. Sometimes it’s hard to see the full picture too. I sometimes hover over my daughter at the little playground at the pool but it’s only because people leave candy bar wrappers on the ground there all the time. She’s 3 and is allergic to nuts, so I need to make sure she doesn’t pick up a Snickers bar wrapper and find some leftovers.

    2. There’s a kid here whose parents micromanaged everything. He’s a few moths older than my oldest, so they started preschool together. We live 5 minutes away from preschool, they live half the way, and they would push him in a stroller, because reasons. At the playground, they would stand next to him all the time and interfere whenever anybody initiated contact, either he with the kids from preschool or they with him. Not interfere in the sense of forbidding it, but trying to do this for him. It became better over the years (and finally they even say hello to people!)
      Sure, you never know the whole story, but at some point it’s statistics and probability. Not all these kids can have special needs that require this kind of supervision.

      1. I did run into a mom once at the park who did not want her kid to play with weapons of any kind, so she was yelling at another boy who had brought a toy sword and my son who (of course) wanted to play with him. She wanted the play-fighting to happen elsewhere at the playground, away from her kid. While I can respect not wanting your kids to play with toy weapons, I think you should just let kids do their thing at the playground and figure it out for themselves. I also can’t stand when people bring nice toys to the playground and then expect that it will be anything but a giant clusterfuck. If you bring a baby stroller to the park, of course all of the toddlers will want it. So either don’t bring it or accept that everyone is going to be playing with that toy.

    3. Yesterday, a parent moved her son away from my non verbal toddler, no reason given, but she told a friend within my hearing that she made it a goal to only allow her daughter to interact with children who would stimulate her intellectually, and every moment that wasn’t a learning experience was irresponsible parenting. Apparently a kid who doesn’t talk isn’t stimulating enough? WTF? Talk about helicoptering–determining every social interaction your toddler has.

  4. I’m becoming more and more convinced that there are very few individual helicopter parents and a very active helicopter culture. I do know that the people who won’t let their kids do anything on their own are out there, as are the parents who call their child’s college professors or counselers to complain about grades and other things that the kids should be figuring out on their own. But even moreso, I think there is the abiding sense that by not being on top of our kids 24/7 we’re somehow doing something wrong and setting ourselves up for censure, even arrest, that is driving the sometimes kneejerk reaction against supposed helicopter parents.

    1. Well, I certainly read a lot about helicopter culture but I don’t feel like I really experience it. Then again, I’ve only been a parent in San Francisco and Washington, DC (with a stint in Alexandria, VA, but that was prior to elementary school), so my experience is obviously skewed to some degree. But here’s what I experience — a ton of stuff thrown at the kids (homework, testing, flash cards, etc.) and no tools for how to manage it. So while I’m not interested in protecting my kid from poor grades, I do think it’s ridiculous to expect kids to navigate all of that on their own. So I work on giving my son tools to do it himself and then I stand back and hope for the best. I often feel like there is no middle ground. I’m always working to get myself out of the equation but I do think that requires a certain amount of involvement.

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