Landing the Aircraft
When I was five I fell off a jungle gym and cut my forehead, requiring 11 stitches across and 8 down. It was a minor upheaval, an anxious afternoon for my mom. I don’t even think my dad came home early from work. No thought was given to changing anything about the pebble-lined playground; no suggestions about spotting a 5-year-old for tricky climbs and flips (I’d been imitating my 7-year-old sister's penny drop when I dropped without the penny part).
True it was a small injury, one which didn’t call for a lot of soul-searching on anyone’s part but so far as I know no one ever asked—where were the adults? The adults were inside making dinner or writing letters or talking on the phone and folding laundry. They were hugely involved in our lives in all kinds of ways, but they also understood when to step out of the ring. We were allowed to be both seen and heard, and that was a breakthrough in parenting compared to their upbringing, but the fact that they were often neither was nothing remarkable.
Most everyone I know my age has similar stories.
How did a generation raised like this turn into hovering aircraft with our own kids? What’s so perfect about the ubiquitous helicopter metaphor is that it gets at both insidious parts of the phenomenon. Not only are parents today hovering nearby at at all times, taking away every chance for freedom or independence, for minor falls that will teach children to be more careful next time, but oftentimes they're never getting down and actually playing with the kids. Sure they are always around, saying their names, singing their praises, but will they follow them over to some weird, dirty corner of the playground or will they say, “Eli, stay here where I can see you.” You could see Eli over in the weird, dirty corner too, but that would mean you'd either have to let him go by himself or risk getting mud on your Manolo Blahniks and one has to draw the line somewhere.
Why not let the kid explore on his own a little, or else join him in his adventure? What is the point of hanging around buzzing and texting and snapping pictures? “I’m here if you need me, I’m here, I’m here” helicopters seem to say, "but unless you’re in danger, you don’t really need me."
Actually, that’s not true. They do need us. To look at the ladybug they found (not post a picture of them holding it on Facebook). To ride down the slide next to them. To help them push sand into a hole in the sidewalk. They do need us, but not in the way we're telling them to need us.
I love Lenore Skenazy's line: “I tried, but the helicopter parents refused to land."
Let's land the aircraft. Step outside into the sunshine. Breathe the air. For a minute after we cut the engine, the world will seem preternaturally quiet without the blare of the rotor blades. And then we'll start to hear so many other things. Maybe we'll wonder why a little girl is so intrigued by stuffing leaves into her empty snack cup. I’m sure she’d be more than happy to show us why it’s fun. But if we're not interested, we should go sit on a bench and check our BlackBerrys and let her get on with all the exciting things she needs to do.