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Is Helicopter Parenting An American Phenomenon?

By Sierra Black |

I’m enjoying the summer here in Buenos Aires. I’m also seeing firsthand evidence to support the idea that helicopter parenting is a particularly American phenomenon.

The other day I took my girls to a park, where we played happily together. We went up and down rickety wooden slides with rusty bolts. I pushed them on the swings. We made a sandcastle in an uncovered sandbox. We said hi to a stray dog. We rode on the extremely tall and steep see-saw.

This wasn’t a derelict playground. We were at a busy park in an affluent neighborhood, surrounded by chic moms with their adorable, fashionably dressed toddlers. No one seemed concerned that a child could theoretically be injured on the equipment.

At the park, I noticed something else odd. I was the only mother on the see-saw. Or on playground equipment at all. The other moms sat on park benches talking to each other while the children played. Alone.

It’s just one visible symptom of a larger attitude: parents here don’t hover the way parents do back home.

The kids here do all the things our kids do: go to school, take after-school classes, play with friends, pursue hobbies. But they seem to do it with less supervision. Parents appear to move through parenting with less anxiety. They sit back and have a glass of wine while the kids play at a birthday party. They play cards while the kids watch a movie in the evening.

It’s not that they’re less engaged. If anything, they seem to be more engaged. Maybe because they’re less tired. The parents I see (admittedly a tiny subset of the population) really enjoy their kids. They do homework with them, they play games with them, they go for long walks with the older ones and snuggle the little ones.

But they also have their own lives. Those moms on the playground weren’t carefully neglecting their kids to teach them some valuable independence. They were just hanging out.

No one here has expounded to me their favorite theory of parenting. I have yet to hear any debate about the virtues of crying it out vs. cosleeping, or nursing vs. bottle feeding. I spend nearly all my time here with other moms who are curious about how I live and want to share their culture with me, but no one talks about parenting styles.

There’s a strong culture of large, close families here. The women around me all see their own mothers almost every day. My mother-in-law’s house simmers with aunts, cousins and grandkids coming and going all day long. Her grandchildren stop by for tea after school, her daughters work with her in a home-based English tutoring business.

With so much family support and wisdom available, maybe there’s simply less need for outside expert advice?

When I had my first baby, I was lucky to have my mother  close by. But she was also busy with her own career. No one else I knew even had a baby. I turned to parenting books to learn simple things like how to change a diaper, and to parenting magazines and websites for community. Of course I got caught up in the world of competing ideals about the right way to raise a child.

It seems that the industry of perfect parenting has yet to take hold here. I don’t see shelves devoted to parenting books in anyone’s home. The drugstores and supermarkets devote a few shelves to diapers and bottles, but there’s nothing like the array of products and safety gadgets any CVS would carry. Small shops for kids sell clothes and a small variety of simple toys, with no “educational” games or “turn your baby into a genius” DVDs in sight.

Good enough is still good enough. As long as the kids are reasonably happy, healthy and well-behaved, no one appears to worry much about how you got there.

I’m hesitant to say, on the basis of a few weeks observing a few families, that parents are happier in Argentina. But I think it’s a safe bet that parents are overall more relaxed than their hovering American counterparts. I am certainly happier swimming outside my usual fishbowl into waters where my kids are expected to play on their own and no one seems to care if they were breastfed or where they go to school.

Photo: Sierra Black

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About Sierra Black

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Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Is Helicopter Parenting An American Phenomenon?

  1. bob says:

    Maybe we should blame the marketers. Is parenting governed by the same kind of fears that can be tapped to cajole us into buying all manner of personal hygiene products?

  2. Meg says:

    I think the helicopter parent is definitely an American phenomenon. The playground atmosphere you described in Argentina is very similar to the playgrounds in Germany (where I live for the time being). I’m personally not a helicopter parent, but why not play with your kids if you want to. I love playing with them on the playground and watching them explore. I find it absolutely amazing! But American’s aren’t the only ones with strange parenting habits. Here in Germany, parents are worried that their children will get cold. It could be 80 degrees out and kids will be covered from head to toe. My twins look naked compared to most German children. But I figure to each his own as long as the children are happy.

  3. kat says:

    I think that for the most part helicopter parenting comes from a)wanting to keep up with the Jones’s like all good Americans and b) wanting to do things differently than our own parents but going way overboard. We really do need to chill out.

  4. Emily says:

    I disagree with the previous posters. I think both of their insights are of things that take advantage of the fact that because Americans are generally more nomadic than the rest of the world (even the Native tribes moved around, and if you’re not native then it’s in your genes to want to explore) we have lost our Village. The Village that helps raise your child. The mothers you observed are relaxed because they have not just their own mothers, MILs, and sisters, but aunts, cousins, neighbors – genuine elders who are there to help and guide and say “I’ve been here and this is what worked.” They’re not relying on books written by strangers or articles in the newest magazines or pieces on the Today show. They aren’t hundreds of miles away from the people who know them best, they are hundreds of steps away. That emotional infrastructure supports them enough to allow them to take for granted that the kids will be alright. Because if – even for a minute – something is amiss, help and guidance are right there.

    There is a large chunk of the world which embraces the fact that you can just live without analyzing every minute of every day. We should all be so lucky.

  5. Laure68 says:

    I have never been to South America, but I don’t know if parents in other countries are as relaxed as Americans often think they are. I lived in France for several years, and while French parents may be more relaxed about certain things, they can be uptight about things that we don’t think twice about.

    Like Meg, I actually enjoy playing with my son on the playground. I feel this time will pass by very quickly and I want to enjoy it as much as I can.

    As a side note – if we weren’t as interested in other people’s advice, what other people think, etc., Babble would most likely not exist.

  6. Laure68 says:

    One more thing – even in the US, “helicopter parenting” is not the same everywhere. Where I live, you do have people doing things like asking if you are nursing, buying organic, etc. However, my parents live in a very working-class, multi-ethnic neighborhood, and I love visiting them because people never ask nosy things like this. There is a lot less of worrying about these little things, I think because they have other things to concern themselves with. From my observations, “helicopter parenting”, nosy questions, etc. is exclusive to white, upper-middle class neighborhoods.

  7. Rufus Griscom says:

    I am currently Barcelona with our two little obstreperous boys, and have also hit playgrounds in London, Paris, and the Bordeaux region of southwestern France. I agree with what you say above — I have consistently been the only dad running around the playground, squeezing myself through playground equipment for little humans a fraction of my size. The Parisians seemed amused by confusion about my age. I agree that they are more relaxed, primarily because they put less pressure on themselves to be playmates. Last night we were at a restaurant in Barcelona that a local friend took us to — we were the only tourists — and next to us there was a couple eating dinner at 11pm, smoking cigarettes, while their kids stared at the ceiling, bored to tears. Broadly speaking, I think it’s a more adult centric culture, which, broadly speaking, I think is healthier for both kids and adults, but not always.

    We have also found that there is less patience for loud and unruly kids over here, which is easy for us to test because our two year old son is an incorrigible shrieker. After repeated efforts to quite our son on the train in France, including about an hour i spent holding him between cars, an older French woman balled us out for our son’s behavior. So it’s my impression that they also expect kids to be muzzled moreso than their American counterparts.

  8. Laure68 says:

    @Rufus – totally true about kids in France. I hardly remember ever seeing kids in restaurants, even casual ones. My cousin told me that one big reason that McDonald’s has become so popular there is because it is the only restaurant where you can bring a child. (However, in Italy I have seen kids all over the place making lots of noise and people seem to love it.)

  9. mumus says:

    Does running after your child drying slides and swings damp with dew so that your child’s pants don’t get wet quailify as helicopter parenting? How about forbidding your child to run too fast, or stand in the sun, or remove a jacket when they’ve worked up a sweat, or climb up a slide the ‘wrong’ way? You don’t see a lot of parents playing with their kids here in Italy but you do see a lot of heavy-handed policing.

  10. ChrisG says:

    The number one cause of death for children under five is accidents. Head injury is the leading type of fatal accident. You seem to be saying “shame on parents” who publicly show concern for keeping their children safe from the number one thing likely to kill them. Why not discourage helmet and seat belt use as “sickeningly overprotective” because they don’t use those things in many other countries.

    Sounds like it’s better to have your kid risk getting paralyzed on a playground than be seen as a “helicopter”. As a child, I broke a bone on a playground (could have been much worse, I could have broken my neck) due to no adults being around while other kids taunted me to jump from too high of a height. Yeah, but at least there was no “helicopter” around…sheesh.

  11. mamacrass says:

    I’ve observed the exact same thing in Germany, as well. It seems somtimes as if there is no such thing as a choking hazard or a germ. Within my husband’s family, there is also a tendency to buy very, very little for babies (and they are relatively wealthy). They once gave him a bamboo hanger to play with and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they whip out a chicken bone. At times it’s refreshing and I’m so relieved to be removed from the neurotic/paranoid, materialistic model of American parenting (which in my opinion, assumes you can have way more control than you actually do) and other times it’s just…sad.

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