Friday, November 20, 2009

Helicopter Parenting: an age-old tradition

Every few months someone poses the same question on the parkslopeparents listserv: “At what age is it OK to let kids go to the playground alone?”

Every time it comes up, the response is always the same, with everyone more or less expressing the same sentiment, which is some variation on this:

“When I was a kid, I would go to the corner to get my dad cigarettes by myself as soon as I was able to walk, about the age of 18 months. When I was 3, I was taking the subway alone to bring myself to day care. I was traveling inter-continentally with NO ADULT SUPERVISION by the age of 4. And that was in the 70s, at the height of crime in the city! And there were no cell phones! So, loosen up helicopter moms, because independence is good for kids.”

I find this idea of helicopter parenting as a new, yuppie development and our youth as a time when kids roamed the streets wholly unsupervised to be very strange. That’s because when I was growing up in Bensonhurst, in the 80s (yeah, I’m younger than you thought, aren’t I?), I never got to do ANYTHING by myself.

I didn’t go to the corner for milk. I didn’t walk to school. I didn’t play on the stoop or even lean out the window without adult surveillance. My mother and grandmother made protective Park Slope parents look like freedom fighters. And when I would protest, “Don’t you trust me?” they’d say, “I trust you. It’s everyone else I don’t trust.”

The most leash they ever gave me was when I was 12, I wanted to go to the Hard Rock Café with a bunch of Manhattan kids, and my aunt and uncle conceded to follow me. Discretely, of course. Turned out to be helpful because we didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.

So helicopter parenting is an age-old tradition as far as I’m concerned. Do I think my family’s Orange Alert paranoia was ideal? Probably not. Had they been more reasonable, I probably wouldn’t have pathologically lied to them all throughout high-school. I got so adept at lying so that I could go to parties and hang out at pool halls and make out with my boyfriend in Central Park, that after a while I would lie for absolutely no reason, just to keep them off my scent, so that nothing I ever said to them between the ages of 14 and 18 was true. I’d say I was going to see the movie Ghost when I was going to see Last of the Mohicans. I’d say I was going to 79th Street when I was really going to 77th. But I was a good kid, I made good decisions, had good judgment and a healthy sense of adventure. I wasn’t scarred because I was sheltered. I fared fine.

I already give Primo and Seconda way more independence that my parents gave me (which isn’t saying much, admittedly) But I have to say, when I read the article which someone posted on the listserv, called “Parenting Without Fear” (by Lenore Skenazy -- the columnist for the NY Sun who let her 9 year-old take the subway by himself and got a ton of flack about it, leading her to write a dozen essays about the revolutionary joy-ride and how famous she is because of it), well, when I read an article called “Parenting Without Fear” I think it might as well be called “Parenting on Mars.” I’d have to be on some pretty powerful mind-altering substances not to feel fear about my children in the world, no matter what streets they are on. The best I can shoot for is, "Parenting Without Paranoia.”

I am all for people giving their kids “free-range” but it drives me crazy when I’m made to feel un-cool or even irresponsible, like I’m hindering their development, if I’m protective of my kids. We do what’s best for our families, and our families are all wildly different.

What’s your take, readers? Are helicopter mothers the curse of modern civilization? Am I the only totally over-sheltered child of paranoid parents? When are you going to let the kids go it alone?