Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Pendulum Swings

Cruising through the TV channels yesterday after work, I noticed that Dr. Phil was doing a show featuring "helicopter parents." The question he asked was: Do we, as parents, let our children have no freedom at all, or do we stand back and let them do everything on their own?

The answer, in my opinion, is neither. You have to walk a fine line between the two. If you let your child have no rules, no boundaries at all, they grow up thinking that they have to follow no rules at all -- either that of adults or of society. That's not a realistic expectation. If you go the other extreme, however, you run the risk of having a child become secretive to hide the "forbidden" behaviors you've driven them into. That's the reason why we have the stereotype of the preacher's daughter -- denied all the fun and taboo things in life, so they rebel and are (a lot of the time) the wildest kids around. Now, for all my preacher friends out there, I'm not talking about YOUR kids. :)

Dr. Phil also had a mother on who has taken a lot of flack in the press recently -- a mother who let her 9 year old son find his way home, alone, from Bloomingdale's. Now, some key points of this particular story (for those of you who don't know of it and live under a rock, or something) are: the child had ASKED to do this sort of activity for a while; the parents discussed it beforehand, and decided it was feasible; the child was not *abandoned* -- he had a city map, a subway Metro card, and $20. As an aside, I would be interested to know whether or not he had a cell phone with him in case of emergency, but we're not told if he has one or not. The mother took the boy to Bloomingdale's, and the child had to find his way home from there. The parents looked at his abilities, and decided that this was something that thought that not only he was CAPABLE of doing, but also SHOULD do so that he would be better able to navigate the city and find his way around.

The mother has gotten bushels of hate mail, saying she's the 'worst Mom in America.' Why would you think she was a terrible mother for giving her child the freedom to explore and learn how to do things on his own? If you never let a child out of your sight, they'll either grow up terribly repressed and run like hell the moment they get any freedom at all, or they will be so stunted as to not know how to deal with other people and with any obstacles that life throws at them. I'm not saying that you should take your kid from East Podunk, Missouri and drop them off in the big city with a ten spot and a map -- that would be completely irresponsible.

What we're talking about here is letting children have some freedoms within reason. How many of you played outside all day when you were younger? People my age ought to remember playing outside without parental supervision -- I remember my mother telling me that I had to be home either by the time the street lights came on, or when she called us for dinner. I was a bookworm as a child (still am, really) and my mother would take away my books and send me outside as *punishment!* I had to go out and find something to do. Ride my bike, go to the playground, find a friend... We've gotten so scared of horrible things happening to our kids that we can't IMAGINE sending them outside all day long. There's something very sad about that. No one wants their kids to be hurt, abducted, or worse, God forbid, but we can't wrap them in Bubble Wrap and closet them away forever. If we never let anything happen to them, nothing will ever happen to them. And, not only will they be totally unprepared to take on obstacles when they're older, they'll also be too frightened to take on new tasks and expect us to bail them out should the slightest thing go wrong.


jo(e) said...

I always thought the key was to give kids as much freedom as they can handle -- and there's no exact formula. Much depends on the kid and where you live.

Quinn said...

Yes, yes, yes. Kids need freedom. And while I'm not advocating complete freedom, the fears we parents have about abduction, etc., are fed by a sensationalist media. The real figures are not that different from when we were young.

Marni said...

They do need freedom and as long as safeguards are in place (cell phone, friends phone numbers, curfews, etc.), they should be able to come and go as they please. You should know the maturity level and capabilities of your child and let that guide what they can/cannot do.

ccw said...

My mom and I discuss this quite frequently and always come to the same conclusion: all of these quasi-adults we read about and see on TV are a direct result of the helicopter parenting method and giving them anything they want. Seriously, how in the hell does one expect their child to be able to enter the workplace as an asset if they are calling them to wake them up at college and bitching at professors for them?

Of course, maturity has to be taken in to account but freedom and responsibility have to be given.

amy said...

For the parents of younger children, I'll add this tidbit about the physical component.

My tot has Motor Planning Delays, which, in a nutshell, means she's really klutzy. (I'm fairly certain she inherited that from me.) Both her social worker who worked with us on her feeding issues and the occupational therapist we see now say that letting a child push herself physically without us hovering over/behind/within-arm's-reach is crucial to their gross motor development. If a child always assumes a hand is there to catch her (like when climbing the playground rock wall), she will actually attempt things beyond her capability because she doesn't know the boundaries of her ability. In these situations, the child is in more danger, not less, because she'll take inappropriate risks.

This doesn't mean to not watch my child play on the playground - who would advocate that, right? - but to stand back and let her slip a little and catch herself because then the next time, she knows her limits a little better and builds her skills for climbing at a pace that is appropriate for her. She'll make better choices about taking risks because she'll know she has to trust only her own body when she's climbing. That's not to say I wouldn't help her, because I would, but literally hovering with a hand under her 4 year old butt while she climbs the ladder to the slide is not a parenting strategy that will help her become independent in the long run. (I see parents who do this at our playground, including my husband - I'm not kidding.)

I heard the story of this mom and son, and it irritates me that we are never allowed to trust ourselves or our children. We are under constant judgment, and if we fail at the slightest thing, we'll be publicly flogged.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

My hat is off to that mom. The key is, you need to know your own kid. My friend from the Bronx was riding buses and the subway by herself when she was 9. I was riding the DC Metro with friends when I was 11. Not every kid will be ready for that. But if yours is, you should let him or her have that experience.

Anonymous said...

I read an interview with the mom that said the boy did not have a cell phone, because they were concerned he would lose it and cell phones don't work much underground anyways.

I still think she did a good thing in letting him take that trip.

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Anonymous said...

It is useful to try everything in practice anyway and I like that here it's always possible to find something new. :)