It's A Struggle To Find Balance Between Free-Range And Helicopter Parenting

by Ashleigh Wilkening
Originally Published: 
A young mom smiling and standing with her son in front of a heated oven and looking at it
Jeremy Woodhouse/Holly Wilmeth / Getty Images

As my children grow older, I’m finding myself constantly trying to strike a balance of doing enough, but not doing too much. Protect them, but don’t suffocate them. Help them, but allow them to struggle. Give them the world, but don’t spoil them.

It’s exhausting.

I didn’t naively think parenting would be easy or simple, but I wasn’t prepared for the incessant analyzing, concern, and worry that consumes my every thought, action, and decision related to child-rearing. I’m just trying to raise my children to be successful, contributing members of society, not living in my basement mooching off my retirement. Is that too much to ask for?

My recent struggle is finding a middle ground between free-ranger and helicopter parent. I want to give my children ample freedom to explore and investigate this world around them while still attempting to shield them from harm. My best effort to supervise and be attentive without micromanaging and directing their every move makes me wonder, how does one parent without overparenting?

How do I let go when every fiber of my being and natural instinct is telling me not to? As a parent and self-proclaimed “momma bear,” my job is to protect my darling offspring from the many dangers existing in this harsh reality we live in. You can’t turn on the TV or scroll your newsfeed without encountering horrific stories and reports about the overwhelming amount of violence and destruction happening all around us. While I agree the news has become increasingly dramatized, emphasizing and exaggerating the negatives and creating a more fearful perspective of our surroundings, it truly is a scary place to live in and there are many potential threats.

We’ve all encountered those overbearing helicopter parents. The ones with an invisible umbilical cord still attached, constantly hovering over their children. These overprotective, controlling moms and dads can be found frantically attempting to shield and guard their kids from anything remotely displeasing.

Then there are those free-range parents who willingly give their children distance and opportunities to explore freely. They’re implementing this “hands-off” approach in hopes of helping to cultivate their child’s independence and self-sufficiency while giving them a sense of confidence in themselves and their abilities.

Keeping kids too close (AKA smothering) can sometimes result in rebelliousness from a deep desperation for freedom. With the constant parental presence, some may argue these children will be unable to cope with the challenges and struggles they’ll later face in life while continuing to use their parents as a crutch throughout adulthood. These children will be set free into a mean, cruel world without the necessary skill set to manage adversity and completely ill-equipped to cope with disappointment possibly leading to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

What happens when you give kids too much space and distance? These are the kids who are constantly running wild, unsupervised, doing whatever they want, whenever they want to, while leaving you wondering, Where the hell are their parents? Let’s not forget how horrible the world is, and although you can’t protect your children from everything, will the excessive inattentiveness invite harm and further jeopardize their safety?

When I was younger, I was that stereotypical child playing outside all day, not coming home until the street lights came on. Either by note or shouting while sprinting out the door, I would tell my mom where I was going. Many times, my destination changed as I bounced around from friend’s house to friend’s house until darkness set in. As a kid, I didn’t have a care in the world, truly ignorant of the potential dangers lurking around every corner. As a parent, reflecting on this time, I’m both terrified and astonished I survived.

We all can agree we live in different times. Reality paints a much darker picture nowadays than those innocent precious years from when I spent my youth playing kickball in the nearby cul-de-sac or ghost in the graveyard in some neighbor’s yard. I couldn’t imagine giving my children this much unsupervised room to breathe, and yet, I appreciate the importance of allowing them space.

Life is full of teachable moments, and these experiences help to develop critical skills that are instrumental to their success later in life such as problem-solving and conflict-resolution. Kids need to experience struggle and disappointment. It encourages resiliency, persistence, and determination while teaching them to overcome obstacles.

Allowing my children to do something on their own and the freedom to explore and investigate this world around them is important. They’re able to reap the rewards of doing something on their own, helping to build their confidence, and when they fail, they’ll learn how to work through the disappointment, recover, and bounce back. Freedom and space will curate their independence, teach them about boundaries, give them a sense of responsibility, and help to develop their individuality.

The key is moderation and understanding each of my child’s strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Every situation can be examined to determine if my support and guidance is needed or if it’s more important for me to back off and let them resolve on their own. How else will they learn unless I let them?

I refuse to micromanage their actions and direct their every move. My job is to guide and prepare them to navigate through this world without me by their side.

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