What Studies About Helicopter Parenting Get Wrong

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 

Two weeks ago, my wife and I got into an argument about whether or not our 11-year-old son should be allowed to walk our dog around the neighborhood alone. Our dog is a small mutt we got at the pound, most likely a mix between a dachshund and a chihuahua, but he is protective and a little feisty, and I have no doubt that if a stranger approached our son, he’d sound an alarm.

We live in a small, middle class, neighborhood in rural Oregon, with little to no crime. He also had a cellphone with a tracking app. And yes, we discussed safety. But honestly, we were already being pretty safe. What we mostly discussed was whether someone would call child protective services on us for allowing our son to walk the dog alone.

I know for a fact that most parents reading this have had a similar conversation.

I couldn’t help but think of this moment when I read a recent study stating that helicopter parenting was the preferred form of parenting. Yeah, I know. I rolled my eyes there, too. Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University in New York, surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,642 American parents of elementary school kids about parenting styles and found that regardless of education, income or race, the helicopter approach had almost universal appeal.

Well, of course, that’s what he found. All 3,642 parents surveyed were probably afraid to answer otherwise because they would be judged, shamed, or dare I say, investigated by protective services. You laugh, but in the past three years I have seen trending stories about a mother who was investigated by child services for allowing her child to play alone in the backyard, and an 11-year-old boy taken into custody because he was playing alone in his driveway. Let that sink in.

You know, when I was 11 I spent most of the summer at a rope swing with my friends. It was along the Provo River, middle of nowhere Utah. No parents around, just kids. More or less, it was a husky brown rope strapped to a dying tree, and we spent hours there, working on backflips, and front flips, and belly flops.

Sometimes we climbed up into the tree and jumped into the river from dangerous heights. Sometimes we flat out fell from the tree. Sometimes we got into fights. No one ever, not once, told us to be careful. We got into trouble, and we figured out how to get out of it. This was back in the mid-’90s, back when parents could let their children go off and do something like that.

If my son were to ask if could go to a rope swing with his friends, I’d honestly wonder if I’d end up making trending news. But at the same time, I don’t know if he’d even ask. A couple years ago, he and I watched The Goonies. Right before the young boys followed the pirate’s treasure map into the abandoned summer restaurant — the place where the criminals were hiding out — Tristan said, “Where are their parents?”

Five years ago, children used to play in my neighborhood. They don’t anymore. I know they still live in these houses around me, but they don’t. The reality is, helicopter parenting isn’t really an option anymore; it’s mandatory. And I am not happy about this. As a parent who was raised in a time when I learned a lot by getting into dangerous situations and finding my way out of them, I cannot help but wonder what this is doing to my children’s overall development and ability to cope with future struggles.

And yet, my hands are tied.

I accompany my three children everywhere, regardless of how far away it might be because helicopter parenting is not preferred. It. Is. Mandatory. Their safety is paramount. I’m scared to let my kids wander the neighborhood because they might get hurt, or kidnapped, or who knows what, even if those dangers are statistically small. And I’m scared that someone might accuse me of neglect for allowing my children to wander unaccompanied, the way I did as a child. Obviously my neighbors are too. It feels like we all agreed to some unwritten social contract that tells us to keep our children from being children, in an attempt to keep them safe. And I’m not sure what that means.

Perhaps this is only my neighborhood. Perhaps this is a middle-class thing. After my father left, my mother struggled to make ends meet, and I became a latchkey kid. Suddenly my curfew wasn’t the streetlights anymore; it was much later. I had to be home before my mother got off her second job. Perhaps that was the real reason for my freedom to wander. I don’t know, but what I can say is that were it not for social pressure, my son would be allowed to walk our dog alone.

But after discussing the situation with my wife, after considering all the variables, I put on my jacket and walked the dog with him.

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