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Is Helicopter Parenting An American Phenomenon?

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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