My husband and I are raising four kids together. This year they are 12, nine, five, and three. Both my husband and I were born in the '80s and we were both raised like typical '80s kids. We played outside unsupervised, we drank from the hose, we rode our bikes to neighbors’ houses and to the store down the street. We prepared our own meals at an early age and stayed home alone at early ages, too.
As our children have gotten older we’ve noticed that our default is to parent like our parents did. Sometimes these are conscious choices, and other times we just fall into the same patterns and routines our parents implemented for us. We have also noticed we are in the minority these days. Most of the parents we encounter are far less laid back than we have been in our 12 years of parenthood. We are often intrigued by the evolution of parenting we have witnessed between our own childhoods and now.
At this point in our life, most of our friends have multiple children. We spend a lot of time around a lot of kids and are witness to a wide range of parenting styles.
One thing we have noticed over the years is the varying level of awareness in the children of different families with whom we are acquainted. Some families’ children regularly practice self-control and empathy, express concern over disobedient and reckless behavior in their peers, and respond quickly and respectfully to being told no. Other families’ children tend more towards unawareness, compulsive and aggressive behavior, and disregard of rules and boundaries.
Because these varying degrees of awareness seem consistent inside varying family units, we have concluded that it is a result of parenting practice. But we have never been able to connect what parenting practice might affect this.
Many of the parents we know are what my 12-year-old refers to as “overprotective.” They hover, they say "no" a lot, they correct and reprimand nearly constantly. I think all of this is done with good intention. We all want our children to be well-behaved, to make good choices, and to be safe. Most of their intervention seems to be with those things in mind.
At first glance this appears conscientious and effective. Maybe even necessary. But this week I had a lightbulb moment and I think I am onto something. Throughout our 12 years of parenting, we have received many comments and questions about how laid back we are and how well-behaved our children are. I have never directly connected the two. Until now.
I think children are given an internal alarm that warns them of danger and makes them aware of others and of action and consequence. And I think when parents hover, when we reprimand and remind and warn every few minutes throughout our children’s day, we silence that internal alarm.
I picture it like an alarm clock. When we train our bodies to awaken to an alarm clock, our inner alarm clock remains dormant. We create a dependency on the external alarm clock so our inner alarm clock no longer has purpose and therefore no longer works as it was created to work. We become conditioned to listen for the external alarm clock and not our natural, inner alarm clock.
When children are constantly shadowed by an overprotective parent, their natural, inner alarm clock that warns them of danger, tells them their behavior is harmful to another child, and tells them it is important to listen and obey the adults, no longer works properly. They have been conditioned to listen for the external alarm clock so they are no longer connected to their inner alarm clock. If someone else isn’t reminding them to stop, they don’t stop.
I know the intentions of overprotective parents are good. We all want our children to make good choices and we all want our children to be safe. But I also think our good intentions sometimes have bad applications. While the intention of helicoptering is to protect, I think the application might actually endanger, because we cannot be with all of our children every second of every day for the rest of their life. If we could, we could safely remain their alarm clock. Because we can’t, it is vital that they connect to their own, inner alarm clock.
There are a few simple practices one could start with for quieting the parent alarm clock so the children can hear their inner alarm clock. They will vary somewhat according to the age of your children. I listed them in order of the child's age at the time of implementation:
1 | Keep the house relatively un-babyproofed. Teach them boundaries through conversation instead of locks.
2 | Let them get dirty. Being dirty is a natural part of being a kid. It teaches them the natural rhythms of life. The saying at our house goes, "Dirty feet means it’s been a good day." My kids will check their feet at bedtime and announce, "It's been a good day!"
3 | Never reprimand them for accidentally breaking or spilling things. Think of these moments as teaching moments. Let them clean up their spills and messes. They are learning action and consequence.
4 | Let them dress themselves and get ready for the day and for bed. These small routines can empower them and teach them responsibility, self-awareness ,and decision-making skills.
5 | Let them play outside unsupervised. Outdoor play creates non-stop learning moments. Stay near a door or window to keep an ear or eye out if they are younger, but let them explore the outdoors without intervention.
6 | Let them argue. We intervene if there is yelling, name calling, or physical harm. But if they are just arguing, we let them argue it out. This teaches them relationship skills, communication skills, and empathy.
7 | Let them prepare their own food. This will evolve dramatically with age. Start simple with them getting their own water at dinner or pouring their own cereal. Go from there.
8 | Let them be responsible for their own chores and homework. Around here, privileges are earned through responsibility. They know what chores and homework for which they are responsible. They are granted levels of privilege that match their level of responsibility. This is another great way to teach action and consequence.
9 | Let them stay home alone. My husband and I were in elementary school when we started staying home alone. Some parents we know wait until middle school. Gauge with caution. Start with 30 minutes while you are nearby. Go from there.
10 | Lastly, teach through conversation. Talk about life and family and kindness and responsibility at the dinner table, in the car and sitting together in bed at night. Use calm conversation to teach them about what to do rather than emotionally lecturing them about what not to do.
I know parenting is a sensitive subject. We all want to do right by our kids. It hurts when we question if we have done so. If you are or have been a helicopter parent and find that reading this rings true for you, please know that it is okay to try something new. I know you have been doing your best. Sometimes our best yesterday looks different than our best tomorrow. Every morning offers us a new day and new chances. I am never more grateful for this than I am in my role as a parent.