At a birthday party over the weekend, I witnessed a girl of maybe 5 or 6 trample a little boy who was still trying to master walking, pushing him out of the way so she could go first on the slide. The mother of the older girl said only, “Oops! Careful with the little ones!” Meanwhile, the toddler wailed in agony over a crushed finger, and the little girl ran off without so much as an apology. I’m not even sure she heard her mother. The toddler’s mom and I made eye contact, and I know we were thinking the same thing: Are you freaking kidding me?
This is not an isolated incident. I see it all the time, parents letting their kids behave like complete dicks without an iota of recrimination. Articles I read online encourage this laissez-faire attitude, leaning more and more every day toward “hands-off” parenting, with the general consensus being that we should just “let kids figure things out on their own.” Everyone’s so terrified of looking like a helicopter parent that they’ll let their kid stab someone’s eye out with a stick before intervening. Hovering is a cardinal sin.
Perhaps it might be time for a little balance.
To be clear, I’m all for letting kids figure stuff out on their own. Anyone who knows me as a parent would say that I’m far from a helicopter mom, that I fall somewhere closer to the free-range end of the parenting spectrum. I often joke that my 9- and 5-year-old are as independent as they are as a result of my benign neglect. They know how to make their own breakfast because I really like sleeping in on Saturdays. So I swear, I really am not a hoverer.
But when it comes to more complicated social issues like repentance, contrition, generosity, personal space, bullying and physical violence, I think we parents need to be more present. If ever there was a time to hover, this is it.
Sure, a kid who acts like a jerk all the time and has no regard for anyone else’s comfort or personal space might eventually learn from his peers that this behavior is not socially acceptable. Maybe he’ll get ostracized enough that he’ll feel compelled to do some serious personal introspection and thus magically realize the error of his ways. But at what cost? How many kids does he have to hurt, how many potential playmates have to curl their lip and run away from him before he finally gets the lesson? And what if he never gets it? How did “figuring it out on his own” work out for him?
The thing is, kids can be dicks. They’re born that way. Ever hung out with a baby? Total dick, right? Babies are selfish and needy and totally oblivious to anyone else’s discomfort. They scream in your face and pinch your nipples and yank your hair with absolutely no remorse, and they continue to do those things until you say, “Ow. Stop that.”
It is our job to parent the dickishness out of our kids. Sure, we can do a lot by simply modeling kindness and respect, but we also have to physically step in when our child has harmed someone else, get down to eye level with them and the child who has been hurt, and say, “Hey, junior, I know you didn’t mean to, but you stepped on Sally’s fingers. See how she’s crying? Doesn’t she look sad? It might make her feel better if you say sorry and offer her a hug.”
This kind of lesson in empathy is not inherent. Every child will not just figure it out. And so it goes for any incident in which our children have caused harm to another, be it physical or emotional. We must get involved and play the role of helicopter parent, if only for a few minutes. Let us do that much for each other and, more importantly, for our kids.
If we don’t, someone’s gonna put an eye out.