Sunday, May 16, 2010


I heard this term used the other day...

I understand that this term is not a flattering one, and was created by those with some contempt for this kind of parenting, but as long as we're talking about it...

How many schlocky 80s family sitcoms sprinkled the once-lost-now-found-parent-uttered "we're so sorry, we only wanted what's best for you?"  Typically, the scene culminated in a lost game, a busted romance, or an embarrassing stage performance, capping off a frenetic series of events in which someone ended up sprawled awkwardly on the floor, with spaghetti slopped into a ruined hair-do, topped with shocked silence or a group snicker.  And seemingly, everything could have been prevented had the parent just let the child complete her task alone.  Could the decade of child stars, bad hair, and formulaic drivel have had the right idea about letting kids do their thing?

Like a lot of issues posted here, there's no "Eureka!" answer.  Though I favor laissez-faire are some really bad ideas to "laissez-faire":

  • allowing your kids to play pin-the-fork-in-the-electrical outlet
  • permitting TV-watching without supervising content
  • Leaving your 3 year-old alone in the room with your infant (yes, I caught one of my kids trying to touch our infant's eyeball because she wanted to see how it felt...)
  • 3AM bedtimes!
  • lake swimming with walker-pushing great-grandma lifeguarding
  • approving their application to roll around in poison ivy "because I'm not allergic to it."
  • 5 minutes explaining the "why" of "because I said so."
  • biting your child to show that biting is wrong
  • Circus peanuts...ever.
I read a book a while ago  - "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" - that captures perfectly the idea of letting kids leap their own obstacles.  I'm glad Dr. Mogel didn't call her book "Blessing of a Broken Arm" or "Blessing of Some Mild Head Trauma," as I am not sure I could get behind such a book.

What's a little blood on the knee?  Scrapes heal.  C- on an 8th grade English paper because your son gambled on snow, playing video games until 5 AM, snacking all night, having a ball, watching college basketball re-runs, only to find out early in the morning that not a flake had fallen, necessitating the worst vomit-on-paper ever produced?  Your boy won't count on snow again to rescue him from his responsibility.  Daughter cut by the high school softball team?  Disappointing, for sure, but does one have to call the coach for a tongue-lashing that leaves real welts?

Learning experiences for kids include both book-learning and experiential learning;  no one ever learned to hit a fastball without actually staring down the barrel.  My wife Beth and I used to eat at the same restaurant once upon a time, and while there, we'd rifle through the sugar packets that spewed platitudinous remarks like "A Stitch in Time is Better than 2 in the Bush" or "What Goes Up Must Come Down Unless Aerodynamically Enhanced."  We still talk about the following one:   "experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it the second time."

I suppose kids can just "figure things out" as the get older.  I guess some kids sprout resilience without ever being tested, and that some kids never get it, sheltered or not.  However, I think my daughters won't allow me to hang around 24/7 for the rest of their lives, so if I expect them to survive on their own, let's see them practice on their own.

Training doctors work this way.  We're supervised as residents, caring for people while a more experienced physician watches.  Residents function autonomously...but have someone else not-too-far away in case PB& Fluff fever walks in, and the resident has never seen that before.  Is there a doctor who always had a more experienced doctor sitting on his shoulder after residency, watching over his every move, whispering "Ah, you SURE you want to do that?"

Of course, stranding someone on Devil's Island doesn't teach them much, either.  Leaving a child to cook dinner for her siblings so she can experience the dinner-and-bedtime-hour would be fun like watching a can of Lysol in a bonfire is fun (so long as one observes from a healthy distance with a good fire crew nearby), but is that a useful experience?

If your child thinks you'll pound the deus ex machina button every time her pants catch on fire from a short-sighted kid move, she'll never learn to stop, drop and roll.  As parents, we have a hard time letting go, but doing so allows them to fail so that the next time, they'll see failure coming...hopefully right before it smacks them between the eyes.


  1. there was an NPR call-in show episode about helicopter parents a couple of weeks ago. I had heard this phrase a few times, especially in relation to kids going off to college. When we went to college in 1990, we talked to Mom and Pop 1 or 2 times a week. Nowadays with cell phones and other forms of messaging, apparently, Mom knows your grade on a test instantly, and no doubt everything else about you. Likewise for protecting kids from harm - such as kneepads for babies learning to crawl. I think we are in precarious times - parents of teens are somewhere between early 30's and mid 40's - parents who themselves were raised by post-hippie pre-yuppie parents who perhaps didn't know exactly how to raise their own kids but did the best they can, coupled with media and "experts" who scare people into over-protecting their kids.
    My parents had some rules for us - curfew of 11pm, 1am once I got my license. One time my dad actually made me drive home and he drove my friends home. That was somewhat embarrassing but probably the right move.
    Anyway, interesting reading.
    Mike Cohen

  2. Thanks, Mike. Agree 100%, and knowing your Dad, I'm sure he made the message clear!


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