Monday, June 27, 2011

Hover. Or Else.

In traditional politics, there are two main parties - the Republicans and the Democrats. In the highly-politicized world of parenting, the two main parties are the Free-Rangers and the Helicopters. While most parents want to think of themselves as an Independent or would prefer to join some other party, if there were only a viable candidate, chances are they feel compelled to support one of the two, major candidates.

Unless you're old Free-Range Lenore, sending your kid off on the subway in New York by himself, while garnering yourself national headlines, it's almost become mandatory that you wind up on the other side of the aisle, staking a helicopter-parenting sign in your front yard. The true free-rangers are kinda like Libertarians, they've got a unique way of just not caring what others think of them and want everyone 100 percent out of their business. Therefore, it's my belief that helicopter-parenting has become the default party for most parents. We love to mock it, we secretly hate it, but it offers parental asylum.

We want to let go. We want to give our kids more freedom to act independently but when we do, like an affair on the campaign trail, it always comes back to bite us. So, we hover and we over-protect, lest something happen -- even if that "something" is only the judgment of another parent.

At the park recently, my daughter asked me to watch her do something. While I was appreciating her newfound skill, I momentarily lost track of my son. I started to do "the scan" looking around the playground equipment he'd been on, trying to locate him. Quickly, I'd moved on to the "run and call," trying to find him. I did -- he was walking down the middle of the street. While he'd been out of my sight for less than a minute, he'd managed to get into the road. Luckily, nothing happened and I was able to grab him and direct him back towards the park.

But what if, God forbid, something had happened? You and I both know, that if the worst had happened and there had been a news story about a little boy wandering out of the park and getting hit by a car, the first thing everyone would have asked is "Where was that boy's mother?!" No amount of reasonable explanations would have mattered. I would have been labeled a bad mom. An irresponsible mom. I would have been labeled a hippie, free-ranger. I would have been condemned in the court of public opinion. Added to my own personal grief, would have been the harsh judgment of the parenting community.

Over at the Stir recently, one mom shared her experience of letting her daughter go to the bathroom by herself, only to have multiple restaurant employees intervene -- leaving their posts to accompany the girl to the bathroom, informing the mother they had done so (classic passive-aggressive move, letting a mom know you think she's irresponsible in her decision to give her child a wee (pun intended) bit of freedom, btw). Babble also picked up on this story and contributed to the sentiments -- while we may want to loosen up, society seems to force us to keep a short leash.

I have a friend who allowed her elementary-school-aged children to go to the neighborhood park one block from their house, unattended. This is a park in a suburban sub-division (think Weeds, Season 1, before Nancy and co. all went off the deep end), and received "the look" from other moms, who couldn't believe her permissiveness. Again, if you veer from the ultra-safe, socially acceptable role of helicopter-mom, you're judged.

There are the big, in-your-face moments where people criticize your parenting choices and then, there are the smaller ones. The subtle jabs, letting you know someone thinks you're being too permissive. You know, the mom at the park who tells her child they're not allowed to do something, and when the kid points out the fact that your child's doing it, loudly replies, "I can't tell her not to do it, but I can tell you not to do it." The none-too-subtle implication being that oh boy, would she love the chance to tell your kid to stop and really wishes you'd mom-up and tell your kid not to do whatever "it" is at that particular time. Small attempt at granting a tiny bit of freedom. Result: Judged.

While a few people take to the helicopter-style of parenting like ducks to water, most of us go there more reluctantly. The truth is, most of us want to relax and loosen up a bit but we feel pressure to toe the party line. The fear of the internal guilt we'd feel if something bad ever happened to our kids, combined with the public pressure to monitor and be responsible at every second of the day, forces us to hover beyond our comfort level.

It seems that previous generations didn't worry about this sort of thing. There was a more relaxed attitude towards child-rearing. People didn't subscribe to various parenting philosophies, they just got on with it. Parenting wasn't a competitive sport, the way it is today. I think that most of us would like to return to that, live and let the kids live a little, mentality. However, just as the middle class is disappearing before our very eyes, so too is middle-of-the-road parenting. Sadly, it seems that without sweeping political change, neither is coming back anytime soon. And I, for one, don't see any viable candidates on the horizon.

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