The Soapbox: On “Helicopter Parents” And “Free Range Kids”

I grew up in the ‘80s on a tree-lined neighborhood that skirted the edge of New Haven, Connecticut. Nobody really traveled down my short street unless they lived there or were visiting, and my family was friendly with all of our neighbors. With a backyard that was mostly brambling bushes and trees, I spent the majority of my childhood playing right out in front of my house, alternating between frolicking in the garden (much to my mother’s chagrin) or biking up and down the sidewalks with friends. A good portion of that outside time was spent with friends, by myself, or with my younger brother in tow, but mostly unsupervised by adults. Sure, my mom stuck her head out every now and again, and a neighbor was never far off. But the majority of my outside play was independent and unstructured.

When my own son was old enough to play independently outside, I followed my parents’ lead and allowed him some space to explore on his own. There were limits and expectations that I set, especially since we don’t have much of a yard. A lot of his outdoor play takes place in our driveway or the sidewalk of our dead-end street right near the town center. At age four he would happily play in our sandbox, right outside the kitchen, while I cooked — popping my head out every couple of minutes and responding to every call for me that he shouted out, but otherwise allowing him to independently explore and enjoy his time outside.

Now, at almost six, he is allowed to ride his bike on the sidewalk, down to the dead-end side of our street and back all by himself. He plays in our small, urban garden while I fold laundry or work inside. I’m never more than a quick shout away, and can easily peek out on him if need be. But apparently, for some folks, the way I allow my child to play without hovering constantly nearby would constitute child endangerment. At least, that’s what happened with Texas mother Tammy Cooper and her children just last month.

Cooper was watching her two children, ages six and nine, ride scooters in their cul-de-sac from her patio. While she wasn’t right there next to her children, they were certainly not unsupervised. Yet somebody still reported her for child endangerment and Cooper was arrested, spending 18 hours in jail. (Ironically, being in jail makes a parent truly unable to supervise his or her children.) The charges against Cooper were eventually dropped, but her arrest spurred a larger conversation about how different parents keep an eye on their children in different ways. Some folks were ready to damn Cooper, raising outcries about child abduction. Yet even the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children is quick to note [PDF] that the majority of missing children are abducted by someone they know. Parents are better off empowering their children by providing them with “safety net” skills, they advise, since the reality is that parents are not watching over them every single second of every single day.

However, most people were in support of Cooper, saying that there is a significant distinction between allowing your children some unsupervised play time in the front yard and endangering your children’s welfare through what basically constitutes neglect. And there are still others who go so far as to say that “helicopter parenting” (that is, parents who feel their children are vulnerable and constantly hover over their every move) is actually damaging our children. The New York Post columnist Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free Range Kids, wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post detailing her idea for a new after-school activity: Pay her to ignore your kids. Drop your children off at the pre-arranged spot in Central Park, and Skenazy will be somewhere nearby, probably at a local Starbucks, while the kids play, handle things as they come up, and generally have a good time. This is nothing new for Skenazy, who writes about raising “free range kids” on her website, and was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” for allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the New York City subway home alone from a department store. She pinpoints many reasons why parenting has changed so much in the last 20 or so years from when I was allowed to roam free in my neighborhood to a time when mothers get arrested for not hovering over their children:

In just one generation, what was considered a normal, happy, HEALTHY childhood has become considered WILDLY dangerous. Litigiously dangerous. We’re swimming in fear soup — fear of lawsuits, fear of injury, fear of abductions, fear of blame. (People love to blame parents for not being “responsible” enough.) And Free-Range Kids is trying to paddle out.

One result of not allowing our children some freedom and independence in a safe environment is that they won’t have any idea how to do things on their own as they grow up. Conflict negotiation? I learned that while playing streetball with my neighbors — kids who have their parents to step in and solve each little kerfuffle on the playground will lack the skills required to stand up for themselves or know when to back down and compromise.

Children need to learn how to play on their own and function with other children without Mommy or Daddy constantly intervening. By having mothers like Tammy Cooper arrested, we’re limiting not only our ability to make healthy, normal parenting decisions, but we’re limiting our children as well.

I happened to catch Tammy Cooper on Anderson Cooper’s show earlier this week. When asked if she would “do it again,” she answered in the affirmative. Good for her. So would I.