Enough with the Helicopter: How I stopped being an overprotective parent

On our family vacation, my five-year-old jumped into the deep end of the pool, realized he couldn’t stand, and looked a bit panicked. Without hesitation, I jumped in, fully clothed, and pulled him to the shallow end. Before I could even lug myself out of the water, he dove under to grab a diving stick then swam to the wall. My entire family spent the rest of the vacation making fun of my Baywatch-style rescue, teasing that I had overreacted. My dad, an old-school man’s man, led the taunts: “You could have at least let him swallow some water!”

Of course I defended myself. “What if he had – ”

“Had what?” my dad interrupted. “Learned he can do something without you fixing it or making it easier?”

Yikes. Was he right?

Visions of annoying helicopter parents spun through my mind. When I taught elementary school before becoming a stay-at-home mom, those don’t-worry-I’ll-always-be-right-here parents irked me. Their second-graders struggled without help: “Can you zip my jacket?” “I can’t do the straw on my juice box.” “I’m done. What should I do now?” I saw how they lacked confidence, independence, and spunk compared to the kids whose parents stepped back and let them try, even if it meant failing.

But now it’s dawning on me how strongly I resemble the irkers. My mom, the nicest person ever, refers to me as a “mama bear,” and I’m starting to realize it may not be a compliment. It’s not terribly surprising that my five-year-old and two-year-old boys do not play well alone; I never give them the chance. If I even attempt to get something, anything, done while they are around, I hear, “What should I do?” So I invent ways to include them, even though it usually makes what I’m doing more difficult. “Put the clothes in the dryer – no, not behind the dryer.” “You can push the vacuum – but not over your Legos!” “Water the flowers, honey, not your head.” Usually, though, I exercise, shower, do laundry, clean, prepare dinner, and write while they nap; when they’re awake, I’m too busy monitoring their every move.

Until now I seriously thought I was doing right by them, that I was being the best mom I could. I wonder, though, if I am actually stifling them. I’m certainly stifling myself. I spend so much of my day hovering, preventing boo-boos, planning, cleaning up (and disinfecting) after them, and creating teachable moments, no wonder I complain to my husband each night that I never get two seconds for myself. If I’m not a helicopter mom, I’m her lifeguard cousin.

At a recent wedding shower, I had the pleasure of sitting at a table with my mom and her friends. These women have known me since I was little. “It’s so much harder for you parents today,” one of them said to me. Another woman agreed. “I would never have a big family today,” she said. When I asked her why she thought it was easier when her five kids were young, she explained, “The kids got up, ate breakfast, then went outside to play.” Another woman interjected, “There’s just so much pressure on you parents today to be the most involved, the most amazing. You have no time for you.” The mom of five added, “And the kids aren’t getting kid-time either – to imagine, pretend, invent, just play.”

I ordered another mimosa and asked myself, at long last, if it might be time to step back. Why am I trying to be Super Mom when I am the first to admit it’s not possible? What am I trying to prove? What would happen if I freed myself from 24-7 lifeguard duty?

This morning I vowed to try it. Before my husband left for work, he reminded me that our yard is fenced, and I’d be able to see the boys through the window if I worked at the kitchen table. “Just try fifteen minutes,” he encouraged me. I tucked the Getting Preschoolers Ready to Read workbook back in the cupboard and put away the materials I had collected the night before to make birdfeeders. Then I shooed the boys outside and gave myself permission to dive into my writing.

“What are we ‘posed to do?”

“Play,” I said.

“What are you gonna do?”

“Write.”

In no time at all, I had completed a draft of a story, and the boys had figured out a new way to ride their plastic dump trucks down our hill. Of course I worried. What if they crashed into each other? What if they smashed into the fence? But my what ifs were interrupted by happy squeals. See, just relax, I told myself. I sipped my Diet Coke and began to wonder why I had waited so long to test these waters. Then, before I could butter my blueberry muffin, a fight developed.

I came so close to running outside to referee, protect. Lifeguard to the rescue! But I stopped myself. Instead, I watched. There was some pushing and yelling, even tears. Soon, though, negotiating started. Rules were discussed. Then back on the dump trucks and back down the hill. Yes!

Looking back at that moment when my son unknowingly jumped into the deep end of the pool, I think maybe I should have given him the opportunity to swim. He hadn’t even called for help, but then again he didn’t need to; I was two feet away from him, like always.

So maybe my dad is right. It’s time for my kids to swim. Or at least be given the chance to swallow some water.

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