Helicopters or Protectors?
How to keep kids safe without unhelpful hovering
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Note: This article is an excerpt from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, our comprehensive guide to using Kidpower’s Positive Practice method to build confidence and competence, available on Amazon.com.
When my kids were young, we worried about being “paranoid, neurotic, overprotective” parents. The popular terms now are “helicopter parents” who hover over every aspect of their children’s lives – and “free-range” parents who want to promote the independence of their kids.
Though the words are different, the issues are the same. As parents, we want so much for our children to be happy and safe that we have to be careful not to deprive them of opportunities to make their own mistakes, to face the consequences of unwise behavior, to learn how to overcome failure, and to develop the independence they need to become successful adults. We also want to be responsible in protecting them from harm while preparing them to take charge of their safety.
The problem is that these labels can get in the way of common sense. As parents or other caregivers, we don’t want avoidance of being overly protective to cause us to provide too little protection. Instead of worrying about labels, we can:
- Gather information about each specific situation so that we are realistic about potential hazards.
- Trust our own intuition and judgment about when children are ready to do what.
- Help kids develop the skills and confidence they need to stay safe while becoming more independent.
- Encourage children to do things on their own as soon as they are truly ready.
Here are five questions to consider in deciding what level of involvement is enough and what is too much when you worry about whether to hover or to let go.
1. Is your decision based on your intuition and knowledge about what is best for your child?
Separating your intuition and good judgment from anxieties growing out of your own needs can be difficult. Parents and other caregivers sometimes have their identity become so intertwined with their children that they make decisions based on their own drive to feel safe and important rather than on what is truly best for each child. Life is not risk-free, and children ‘s needs are different than ours. A child who is never given the opportunity to try things out on his or her own can become fearful and dependent, or rebellious and risk-taking.
One mother was terrified to let her ten-year-old daughter go on overnight visits with anyone because a friend’s father had abused her as a child. Fortunately, she realized that, instead of refusing to let her daughter have fun with friends, she needed to make a plan in order to feel safe by getting to know the parents so she could trust the supervision being provided and by being sure that her daughter had the skills to set boundaries and to get help if need be.
2. Are you trying to protect your child from temporary discomfort or from lasting harm?
Emotional or physical discomfort is temporary, and learning how to cope with discomfort is an essential life skill. Emotional or physical harm is lasting and can lead to injury, trauma, or even death. Our toddler can’t learn to walk if we prevent him from ever falling down and being scared and hurt for a few minutes, but he needs our protection to avoid falling onto a sharp rock, out a window, or off a cliff.
Occasionally feeling sad, tired, bored, frustrated, scared, hurt, angry, or upset are all normal emotions that children can learn to overcome through self-control, resilience, persistence, and determination. However, being overwhelmed with these feelings much the time and struggling alone can lead to depression or other emotional damage.
Cheerfully helping children deal with discomfort is necessary in order for them to develop new skills. A child whose parents cannot tolerate her ever getting a little water up her nose while she is learning to swim may, as a result, never learn to swim. This means that she is likely to miss a lot of fun and is at greater risk of drowning.
The opposite extreme also creates problems. Suppose this child learns to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool where she struggles and chokes. Suppose that she is laughed at or pressured instead of being taught in a way that is safe and builds confidence. Many children taught like this become adults with a life-long fear of being in deep water. Others might love to swim but be fearful of learning other new things.
With the right kind of support, learning to walk or swim is likely to be fun even if there are moments of discomfort. The same is true with learning other skills.
3. Are you giving your child ongoing opportunities to learn to be more self-sufficient or constantly taking over things that your child could do?
Babies depend on their adults for everything. As children get older, adjusting to their constantly changing needs and abilities is a tricky balancing act. If we always rush to help children instead of encouraging them to do what they can for themselves as soon as they are able, we are teaching helplessness instead of building competence.
For example, children need protection from people who cross their boundaries in emotionally or physically dangerous ways. They also opportunities to deal with uncomfortable personal situations successfully, or they will not develop their understanding of how to have successful relationships or the ability to set boundaries for themselves.
As ten-year-old Julie’s mother said, “I was bullied as a child, and I could not bear the thought of anything like that happening to Julie. I was so worried that I stepped in strongly as soon as another child said a harsh word to her or even bumped into her accidentally. Julie started having trouble making friends. Finally, I realized that the problem was that she would come running to me whining as soon as she felt unhappy about anything instead of learning to work things out by speaking up for herself.”
Too often adults take an “all or nothing” approach to conflict between children by either by taking over too soon and too often or by expecting kids to solve problems themselves without adequate preparation. Instead, we can give children coaching and support as they learn how to deal with conflict and build healthy relationships.
4. Does your child have adequate supervision and support to address potential problems?
Children need a level of supervision that is realistically based on their age, abilities, judgment, and the environment around them. They need opportunities to practice doing things for themselves within boundaries that protect them from harm as much as practically possible.
In one childcare center, three-year-old Mario was giving juicy kisses to all the children. The teachers watched Mario closely to intervene when he did this and worked with him to change this behavior. They also taught the Kidpower program to give the children practice in setting boundaries. One little girl did just what she’d learned. She noticed Mario coming, put her hands up as he approached her and yelled, “STOP!” Mario was so surprised that he completely stopped giving juicy kisses at school.
By monitoring and redirecting Mario’s behavior, coaching him to listen, and preparing other kids to set boundaries, Mario’s teachers turned his intrusive behavior into an opportunity for everyone to grow.
5. Are you assessing risks realistically rather than either denying or exaggerating them
Gather information and then trust your own intuition and judgment. In one workshop, a mother said, “My brother let our son ride his bike alone down to the creek because he used to do this at the same age. I got horribly upset and said that our son needed to have an adult go with him. My brother told me that I am being totally paranoid. But I am overprotective, and I can’t help it. Should I let my son go even though I feel so worried?”
All of the mothers and fathers there nodded their heads and said that they were also neurotic, paranoid, and overprotective. Then they all looked at me anxiously, wanting the right answer on how to fix their unreasonable feelings.
“How old is your son?” I asked the mother who had posed the question.
“Eight.” she sighed.
“That’s not very old,” I said and then asked, “What is it like down at the creek? Is it far? Can he be safe with cars on the way there? Is it isolated? What kinds of people go down there? Has the area changed since your brother was a little boy?”
This mother’s answers gave everyone a clear way to see that the creek was not a very safe place for her son without an adult with him. I then pointed out, “Our common sense tells us that we want to assess the safety of each situation carefully before making decisions about what is or is not okay for our kids. Sometimes we can become so fearful of labels like ‘overprotective’ or ‘paranoid’ or ‘helicopter’ that we put our common sense aside.”
If you are worried about a situation, find out more. And take into consideration the knowledge, confidence, and abilities of your child as part of your assessment.
Instead of burdening ourselves with labels like “helicopter parent”, we can focus on how to protect our children from harm, separate our worries from their best interests, and prepare them in positive and effective ways to develop understanding and skills.
Kidpower’s Positive Practice Method gives children the opportunity to be successful in rehearsing age-appropriate skills for being safe with people in contexts that are relevant to their lives. This method also works for other important life skills.
As children tell us over and over after being confronted with a real-life problem that they have rehearsed the solution to, “I didn’t have to remember because my mind and body just knew what to do!”