Last week, in the pouring rain, my eight-year-old son, Isaac, rode his bike to school for the first time. He’d been begging me to let him do it and, if I’m being honest, I was trying to avoid his request. I had plenty of excuses: He would be too tired for track team practice, and there was a bear sighting in the neighbourhood. But the real reason was that I didn’t feel he was ready.
Fed up with my excuses, that morning he grabbed his helmet and ran out the door faster than I could come up with a reason to load him on the school bus where I knew he’d be safe. In the end, we compromised: He could go if I rode my bike alongside his. “I feel stupid,” he muttered, throwing a dirty look in my direction. “No one else rides to school with their mom.”
It’s true. Of the dozen or so kids who ride to school, none are with their parents. They zipped past us that morning, waving at Isaac, who kept his head down. It wasn’t the picture-perfect bike ride I’d imagined, and my son’s cheeks, flushed with embarrassment, made me feel guilty.
“Would you feel better if you pedalled ahead?” I offered.
He sped off over a hill and disappeared out of sight. Although I had no legitimate reason to be concerned for his safety on our quiet road, I held my breath until I saw him top the next hill about 500 metres away. When I finally caught up, his smile was wide. “This is awesome! Want to race?” he shouted, pedalling off again.
That’s all it took for him to find joy - me stepping back and letting him go on his own.
But not all parents let go - and new research out of Brigham Young University suggests that all the love and support in the world can’t protect kids from the detrimental effects of the hovering and interfering that characterizes helicopter parenting. “We thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it,” says study author Larry Nelson.
Recently published in Emerging Adulthood, the study follows up on previous research that discovered the children of helicopter parents aren’t as engaged in school compared to their free-range peers. Now, looking at data from 438 undergrad students in universities across the US, researchers asked students to self-report on their self-esteem and their parents’ behaviour. Students with helicopter parents - even parents who were warm and supportive - reported having lower self-esteem and admitted to riskier behaviours, like binge drinking.
“Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative,” says Nelson. He also warns parents they shouldn’t remove themselves completely from their kid’s lives, which, of course, would have negative effects as well.
While most news outlets covering the study reported that this should be proof that helicopter parenting is a trend that needs to end, I can’t help but feel that a key piece of the helicopter/free-range debate is missing. It’s the piece that says no parenting style is easy, and that watching your child’s every move is just as stressful as letting them explore unsupervised. While I unabashedly call myself a free-range parent, it comes with the disclaimer that my kids push me to it.
Every single day my children challenge me, and I don’t mean simply by putting up a fuss at the dinner table or badgering me for more screen time (although both happen a lot too). Their challenges are more discreet, and come in the form of climbing a tree a little higher than they should, or swimming farther from shore and standing on their tiptoes to wave to me. The way they challenge me, combined with my trust in their intelligence and physical abilities, is what makes my whole family brave. It’s what helps me let go when they most need me to. And it allows me to watch them blossom.
Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.