parents leave them kids alone


Reading Carl Honore’s Under Pressure and Hanna Rosin’s recent piece The Overprotected Kid in the Atlantic made me reflect on my own parenting philosophies.  (I love the reference to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in the url of the Atlantic article).

I think we can agree that my generation is going to be well known for overprotective helicopter parenting.  Rosin notes that we’ve sanitized playgrounds and removed thrilling experiences from childhood.  Honore points to the over scheduling and micromanagement of our children’s lives.  I saw Honore recently at a conference.  There he said something that was really profound to me: growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we are the last generation who will remember free play.

The result is that we are raising children who are constantly being monitored and supervised.  We’ve captured our children in our adult Busy Trap.

When my children were babies, I practiced attachment parenting.  Attachment parenting is all about responding to children’s needs when they are babies.  I carried them around in a sling.  I breastfed them on demand, and they weaned on their own.  Once they hit elementary school, they didn’t experience separation anxiety, and welcomed new experiences with ease.

Here’s the funny thing:  after helping them attach, then it was time to start letting them go.  My eldest two flew to Germany solo when they were 8 and 11.  (Now this isn’t permitted anymore by the airlines).  My daughter started taking public transit alone at age 9, got her driver’s license at age 16 and two months, and started flying alone, handling customs and crossing borders, at age 15.  My eldest son biked everywhere, got his first job at age 15, and grew up to be exceedingly creative, sure of himself and independent.  He moved out a few months after he graduated from high school.

I moved from attachment parenting to benign neglect parenting (could we think of another name for this, please).  Benign neglect parenting is the antidote to helicopter parenting.  You set your kids up for success with secure, attached early years, and then let them be free.

This morning, I chatted with Ella, now 17, around the dining room table.  She’s freshly back from participating and volunteering in a 24 hour bike-a-thon at her school.  They raised over $171,000 for World Bicycle Relief.  I know she was a quiet leader in her group – making posters, bringing the bike, and volunteering her heart out.

I’ll let Ella speak for herself about her childhood.  Did she feel neglected by her mother?

Well, when I had to go through customs, I was scared a little bit.  But it taught me that I can do things on my own.    I think you let you me make my own mistakes.  You did that by not helicoptering.  You didn’t try to control everything.  The best way to know what’s right is to learn what’s right is to learn from your mistakes.  If you don’t make any mistakes, there’s nothing to learn from.  

I am a less than perfect parent. The father of my eldest two and I split up when the kids were 4 and 7.  I know I spent a good 18 months preoccupied being single, escaping to Norway with my kids, and then caught up in the flush of new love with my second marriage.  My youngest was born with a disability, and this immersed me in a world of health professionals and advocacy work.  My eldest two somehow soldiered on, reminiscent of my own childhood, where it was the 70’s – my mom didn’t drive me anywhere, I spent a lot of time by myself, reading in my room.  I moved out and married early, all with great drama.   There was never a safety net under me, and while I might have resented the lack of financial support from my parents early on, I’m grateful for it now.  My parents knew that their one job was to set me free.  And with that, they succeeded.

There is no right or wrong in parenting.  There’s only reflection on what our vision is for our kids, and to put the building blocks in place to help them get there.  I wished for independent, creative kids who are generous and have a good sense of themselves.  And I have the same vision for my youngest, who has Down syndrome.

My newest challenge is to give wings to 11 year old Aaron.  Every time he pushes me away and says, “I can do it myself,” that’s him inching towards independence.  He walks to school with his coat unzipped in the middle of winter.  He picks out his own clothes.  He has to unload the dishwasher.  He makes his own snack after school. He walks down the school hallway by himself.  Giving wings is especially hard to do with a child who has challenges communicating, and who is vulnerable because of his cognitive disability.  But he also must be free from the grasp of his mother so that he, too, can be who he is meant to be.

Want to stop overprotecting your kids?  The answer is simple:  just leave them kids alone.



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