A couple years ago, I sat smugly through a lecture on helicopter parenting, feeling fully confident that nothing spoken during that time applied to me. Who were these overly involved parents who just couldn’t let go, even once their kids had left for college? They were nothing like me, I thought. I’d been an early advocate of children’s independence in my community, encouraging my kids to navigate Vancouver’s public transit alone at the age of 12. My 9-year-old daughter walks around Steveston Village with her best friend and my 15-year-old girls have flown to the United States on their own. I thought I had the helicopter mom in me under control – until my son left for college.
That’s when my over-protective mama-bear instincts kicked into gear, where they remain on high alert. How do you protect your child when they’re so far from home? And where is the line between supportive help and concern, and running your child’s life instead of allowing them to live it on their own? These days, I ponder these questions a great deal, my stomach churning with anxiety as I contemplate all the unseen dangers my son could encounter in the absence of his mother’s watchful eyes and words of cautious advice.
Yesterday, a phone call. “Mom, the craziest thing happened as I was walking to school this morning,” he declared. “I was crossing the road at the traffic lights when a hard tug on my backpack pulled me backwards. I stepped back just as a car ran a red light, flying past inches away from me. I was so close to being hit!”
The vision torments me as I write this, my child so close to life-threatening danger. I worry now about more cars hurtling at breakneck speed on those icy roads that separate his dorm room from his lecture halls. About his reading break, when he’ll be a passenger on the icy 401, his safety at the mercy of drivers I’ve never met. About his plans to go ice fishing in the Muskokas – what if the ice breaks?
This precious, precious child of mine is so excited to experience the world in all its beauty, to challenge his personal limits and dive deep into the friendships and opportunities that surround him. I want all this for him, of course. He is growing, thriving and learning with every turn in this journey far from home. Yet I cannot stop the worry for his vulnerability, nor the fear of “what if?” that pesters my mind incessantly. If that’s the whirring of helicopter parenting, then I’m guilty as sin.
As parents, it’s not always easy to know when to step back and when to be actively involved, particularly when our children head off to college. It’s natural for us to want to protect our kids, said Julie Lythcott-Haims, who published the book How to Raise an Adult after witnessing years of helicopter parenting when she was dean of freshmen at Stanford University. “We love our children fiercely and we’re fearful about what the world has in store for them. But we make the mistake of … being like a concierge in their lives.” (See jewishindependent.ca/ dont-helicopter-parent.)
If I’m a concierge in my kids’ life, let it be known I’m a darn good one. Case in point: my son recently signed a lease on an apartment with a friend-who-turned-out-not-to-be-a-friend, and needed to get out fast. The management company delivered a virtual shrug when he asked for his money back. “We’re not in a position to do refunds,” they told my 18-year-old. At that age, you don’t necessarily know how to respond to a statement like that. But, when you’re 46, you do. You call the company’s chief financial officer and let them know in no uncertain terms that a refund needs to be forthcoming. Posthaste. Voila, the cheque arrived.
I canvassed a mom’s group to ask for their definitions of helicopter parenting, hoping they might help identify the line between caring, support and over-involvement in the lives of college-age kids. You might be a helicopter parent, they suggested, if:
- You know your kids’ passwords so you can register them on time for courses.
- You have been known to call your kids’ instructor/professor, suggest they graded an essay, test or exam unfairly and insist that they reconsider the grade.
- You proofread and edit your kids’ college essays because you want them to get the best results possible.
- You feel compelled to step in and prevent your kids from making mistakes.
I suspect we all want to shelter our children from making awful, life-changing mistakes, so we try to gently guide them around the sharp curves of young adulthood, intervening perhaps too often in our efforts to break their fall. There is deep love in this act, a love that stretches way back to their infancy and embeds us with the certainty that our children are our richest legacies, irreplaceable treasures we want and need to hold close. There will be times when we teeter on the line of over-protectiveness, when the whirring sounds of helicopter parenting will be obvious to those around us. But the best we can do is walk the line, treading with the utmost care. Trust me, it’s much harder than it sounds.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.