So here's the setting: My cousin Judy was maybe 10 or 11, I was maybe 8 or 9. Judy lived on a farm down the road from my house, a farm bursting with things for two energetic and curious kids to do. There was the cow barn, the horse barn, the corn crib, the hay mow. There was also the hill and the swamp, trees to climb, roller skates to roll, newborn kittens to nudge. The farm was a wonderland, a place where I went every day of the summer. I'd wave a cheery goodbye to my mother and set off, after which Judy and I would wave a cheery goodbye to her mother and not be seen again until we got hungry or the sky got dark. There was no cell phone, of course, what is nowadays being dubbed the longest umbilical cord in history. There on the farm it was just Judy and me, on our own, pint-sized Magellans with eyes wide open.
One day we decided to walk up some nearby railroad tracks and spend the day exploring outside our usual stomping grounds. We came upon the river and floated pieces of bark along frothy, shallow water. We watched an owl lift off and flap by overhead and rabbits dart into leafy underbrush. We walked and talked and imagined and bonded and had a fine time, a couple of little though savvy country girls going boldly where they had not before.
After several hours -- or maybe more than several, I'm not sure I remember correctly but it could have been as many as five or six -- we started hearing something in the distance. A sing-songy sound, like "EEEEE-eeeee." Over and over, but faint. We couldn't identify the sound, but thought maybe it was time to head back. As we retraced our steps toward the farm the sound got louder. "EEEEE-eeeeee." Suddenly, there on the tracks ahead, we saw a man in the distance walking toward us. Our brains whispered "railroad tramp!", a not uncommon sight back in those days. We hid behind a bush, waiting for him to pass and hoping he hadn't seen us. He did pass by, at which point his face came into focus.
It was my father. My very angry father.
I didn't wet my pants (I don't think), but if I ever was going to, it would have been at that moment. My dad was not a guy you wanted to hang with when he was mad. And the EEEEE-eeeee? Well, that was two sets of parents yelling "KAAATH-EEEEEE" and "JUUUUUUU-DEEEEEE" over and over as they searched for us.
I guess we got in trouble for our escapade, but honestly I don't recall. If we did it wasn't a big deal, not when we explained we'd seen owls and rabbits and sailed tiny bark boats, although I do remember my mother blanching at the word "river." There was some stern talk and finger-wagging about drowning and if I didn't say it, I know I thought these words: "Aw Ma, it was shallow there. We aren't stupid."
Now some might say our parents were a bit loosey-goosey when it came to keeping track of their children. Certainly these days if parents let two young girls wander off into the mist for hours, child protective services would be knocking at the door. For us, all of us, it was another day in the life. Kids explored alone back then, and while the folks weren't too happy that we took flight that day, everything settled down once we were found. And in fact, we weren't ever lost. We knew where we were, and like I said (or probably thought), c'mon people, we may be kids but we aren't stupid, ya know!
Helicopter parents, a term coined by Foster W. Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay in their 1990 book Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility, describes parents who "hover" over their kids, paying close attention to their child's experiences and problems whether their kids need them or not. Helicopter parents -- also called lawnmower parents because they mow down any troubles that might pop up in front of their kids -- are determined to resolve problems for their children rather than letting the children resolve problems on their own. There seems to be a desire to keep the kids happy at all times, which translates into never letting them fail (everybody's a winner! here's a trophy just for showing up!). This bizarre phenomenon has now escalated to mothers and fathers interfering in educational institutions, insisting their precious child should have gotten a better grade or into a better school, and -- preposterously -- is popping up at the workplace. Human resource departments are reporting that parents of grown, employed children are calling offices and becoming involved in salary negotiations.
Helicopter parents have been around for awhile, but have come into keen focus recently as a result of the ridiculous story about a 2011 Colorado Springs Easter egg hunt, canceled this year because parents last year jumped over rope barriers and rushed in to be sure their tot didn't go home with an empty basket. There's some speculation that the hunt was poorly organized. This does not, however, take away from the fact that hovering parents didn't stand back and let their children figure it out. They charged in, one father saying "You have all these eggs just lying around, and parents helping out. You better believe I'm going to help my kid get one of those eggs. I promised my kid an Easter egg hunt, and I'd want to give him an even edge."
I can't help but wonder what will become of these children in adulthood, the children of hovering and interfering helicopter moms and dads. Will they turn into brilliant thinkers and leaders, blazing innovative trails in math and medicine? Will they write books and persevere even after manuscripts are rejected over and over again, never stopping until they succeed? Will they shun convention and paint heart-stopping masterpieces, even if it means they have to do so as starving artists? Will they forge ahead in business and politics and make the world a better place? Will they, in fact, go boldly where no one has gone before? Or will they crumble at the first inevitable wall, not knowing how to get around the roadblock because they've never had to before, because, until now, their parents have been there to bulldoze the wall down?
My folks were the antithesis of helicopter parents, thank god. They allowed me to explore the world. They were always there in the background, but trusted me to make the right decisions. Of course I failed, and when I did they told me so. Likewise, when I succeeded, I got a deserved pat on the back. I didn't get a trophy unless I earned one, and when I did, when I really did do something accolade-worthy, nothing felt better. I have a friend whose son once said, "Life's a bitch. Get a helmet." Indeed: life can be bumpy and failing hurts. But if you never lose, how can you possibly know how good it feels to really win?
Helicopter parents, check the lab. You may think you're creating an Einstein in there, but it's possible what you're doing instead is setting loose another fellow, the type of whom Mary Shelley was so fond.