Un-Helicoptering

New York Times headlines cry out: 

"Do not let your kid use a computer until age 5!" 

"There are Only 3 Ways to Turn your Son into a Feminist"* 

Parenting articles, podcasts, books, blogs (ahem), and Facebook groups tell me that if I don't carefully shape my kids they might get hurt, hurt others or not - gasp! - excel. So I monitor, hone and teach to make sure my kids are safe, ethical, thoughtful, active, and not too socially awkward.

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Modern American parenting is an active verb, an all-encompassing, full-body endeavor. It's what I'm always doing (or not doing). In our anxious culture of capitalism and individualism, I catch myself wanting to be "better" or "right," on behalf of my children. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of parent-arison.

I watch others and often reflexively judge myself - I am better or worse. And I measure myself against my own ideals, too. There is just so much to know about development! The field has grown exponentially since my mom was teaching developmental psychology in the 1990’s, and I have constant access to information at my fingertips. 

Beware the Helicopter-ing

When I feel uncertain or anxious about something I tighten my hold. I do more, thinking that trying harder leads to greater control of a (better) outcome. 

As an assistant professor at a small college I heard stories of parents calling professors to complain about their child's grade. I wasn't a parent back then so that seemed extreme. Now that I have kids I better understand the instinct to jump in to support my children through challenges. But when I'm at my best I can see that my instinct is one thing and acting on that instinct is another.

How I support my kids is the real question.

At a gut level I know that tightening the reins isn't healthy. Whether it's concern for safety or trying to keep up with the Jones', I certainly over-parent sometimes. 

But too much helicopter parenting can increase a child's anxiety and depression while decreasing self-reliance. Hovering and judging undermines the parent-child relationship and has long-term effects on a child's well-being. 

Former Dean at Stanford University Julie Lythcott-Haims has this great video on (re-) defining a healthy parental role. She describes a four-step process of supporting our kids in acquiring skills:

1) Do it for them

2) Do it with them

3) Watch them do it

4) They do it independently

If you don't watch the video (found at the bottom of this post), at the end of it Lythcott-Haims offers a pithy description of what our task as parent is:

to put ourselves out of a job

Improv Parenting - An Identity Crisis?

In the same way that it feels uncomfortable to look at ways I might be over-parenting (helping my son put on his shoes when he can do it on his own), I've always felt a core tension living within Improv Parenting. Improv parenting is predicated on the idea that we can learn and grow, that we can be better parents for ourselves and our kids. 

But at its core improv parenting is about releasing the reins. It's at once a practice in self-improvement (much as I cringe at that term) AND a practice in acceptance, letting go and appreciating the power of playful connections, in-the-moment living. 

Improv Parenting does live in a tension between two extremes

  • valuing autonomy, self-discovery & acceptance of our biology and idiosynchrasies (free-range parenting)

and

  • striving to influence our, and our children's, personhood (helicopter parenting)

Parenting is a huge responsibility - I have little people to keep safe and oh, by the way, they are watching my every move. A fully hands-off-the-wheel approach can be a way to let myself off of the hook when the going gets tough or when I feel insecure about my choices. And a powered-up helicopter approach isn't good for anyone. 

For me, an over-thinker no matter the circumstance, improv parenting has provided tools to see - and make - clearer, more confident choices. Improv and mindfulness guide me toward humanity, humility, risk-taking, confidence, connection and playfulness. These are things I like. 

Recently my son hasn't been asking for help with his shoes. Whether it's because I finally refused to help or he was just ready to do it on his own, I can't say. But observing this shift in his growth, and my own, is a little bubble of joy.

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*These are made-up headlines.