Sunday, May 03, 2009

American Chopper, playground edition

Sitting on a bench at a local park this morning, my husband and I must have looked pretty lazy. Just about every parent there was two steps behind a child about Danny's age and size. Meanwhile, our son happily and widely orbited around us, watching and imitating older kids, going down slides and up stairs, beating on drums, swinging on his stomach, squirming his way off a three-foot high ledge. My husband and I marveled at his independence while other parents assisted their children in everything from going down the slide to shoveling wood chips into a pail to simply walking on a foot wide beam that was no more than two inches off the ground (really).

I often read Lenore Skenazy's Free Range parenting site. If the name sounds familiar, it's because helicopter parents everywhere had a massive coronary when she let her 9-year-old son traverse New York City alone by subway. I wouldn't do this with our own children, of course, as they are much younger. I do, however, wonder what free range parenting looks like in the toddler years. Just watching other parents at the playground today, I saw what it does not look like.

Parents hover, children believe they are constantly on the verge of disaster and fear even the easiest of activities, like sitting in a chair, drinking from a lidless cup or climbing on playground equipment. Sadly, I've even seen parents set up toys while their children stood idly and anxiously by. As for me, a few months ago I stopped putting Danny's train tracks together for him. In minutes, he figured it out on his own. A few days later, he was putting together an entire circuit of track.

By comparison, our parenting style probably looks like neglect. Danny's been climbing stairs spotted, yet unassisted since he was 8 months old, sitting in a real chair and using adult utensils (minus the knife, of course) since he was 18 months old and recently began climbing ladders and rock walls at the playground. He's 2 and a half. Most of this has come about with minimal direction. And sometimes we don't physically help him even if he asks. Just instructing or reassuring him from a few feet away is usually enough.

Before you jump to conclusions about our parenting style, let me just say that our son is not running around with knives and climbing ladders to the roof. He is, however, given the freedom to learn without being constantly directed, having structured activities forced on him and being physically manipulated. He's also given the freedom to refuse food when he's not hungry and stay awake when he's not tired.

Helicopter parenting deflates a child's innate desire to learn. In its place rises distrust of their own instincts. My sense is that hovered-over toddlers become children and adults who never develop the judgment that would help them navigate the wide world. The paradox is that protecting children from our worst fears makes them more likely to fall prey to those very fears.

1 comment:

Jax and company said...

I often have a hard explaining Lenore Skenazy's theories to 'outsiders'. She had to go extreme to get our attention, while most of would not go that far. Much can be learned from the 'concept', only most of the people I talk to about this immediately shut down at the thought of letting a 9 y/o ride the subway. On the way back from base this morning, I saw a group of early teen Japanese boys on their bikes riding down the busier of the roads on island, with their fishing poles. This whole week is packed with Japanese holidays and the schools are out. But while some of the kids probably will be staying home with their Wii, or whatever, most of them will swarm to the playgrounds and beaches, with out their parents two steps behind. And it's worth noting that there isn't a lot of mischief and troublemaking either.