My 13-year-old daughter is on her first trip away from home for a team sport. She is in another state with adult chaperones and the possibility of tons of fun. And, I’m really glad about that. And, I am a little freaked out, too. Now, you might say, “Oh! You let her go on the trip on her own. Without you?” Some have said that, in fact. In my head it sounds more like this: “WHAT???!!! You let her go away with strangers with no one who could possibly love and care for her the way you do. Answering her every request before it is uttered, anticipating every concern or anxiety to smooth it over first??? How could you do this and still call yourself a devoted, non-neglectful parent???” Maybe I am reading into the mildly accusatory, guilt-inducing tone of their question? So – here’s the rub of the modern parent: the intense pull to helicopter.
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but we became insanely worried about children surviving to adulthood over the last 20 years or so. Some might refer to it as going overboard. Others refer to it as being cautious, righting the wrongs of the un-seat-belted, non-bike-helmet-wearing past. I get it. I really do. I used to ride through the streets (unsupervised) on a bike with no helmet and no hands on the bars (I was particularly proud of that skill). But, lots of kids did get head injuries or thrown out of vehicles in traffic accidents, so something had to change. The problem is that the desire to protect our children from traumatic brain injury has somehow morphed into wanting to protect our kids from anything that might be construed as “traumatic.”
I am a parent with the pull to helicopter. I admit it. My child was a preemie who needed extra support and care at birth, so it might have instilled a bit more protectiveness in me than those with healthy, bouncing babies. I don’t know. What I do know is that, at first, I had to do this. I literally had to helicopter. It was vital that my 1 lb 7 oz baby be protected from germs and other things until she developed into a kid with a stronger immune system and the ability to hold her own neck up independently. So, the helicopter need was real.
Eventually, she grew and grew and was not at risk anymore for failure to thrive or RSV or any number of other things that were touch-and-go at first. I have to give myself a bit of credit. I did start pulling into the “try it yourself” camp a little earlier than my dear husband who is rightly wrapped around her little finger. I let her crawl around on the floor in the airport to the disapproving comments of others about germs and such. I let her fall off the lower part of the climbing wall onto the rubberized playground. But, I also continued to hover, more than was needed.
This tendency was placed under a glaring spotlight when my 12-year-old announced that she wanted to leave the safe, cocooned sanctuary of the private school where we had enrolled her. She wanted to be a “regular kid” who walked to school and changed classes and had more choices. She wanted us to stop helicoptering as much. She needed us to STOP.
So, we did.
With backing off, I’ve realized a few things:
She is more capable than we have given her credit for. She can take the roast out when the oven timer rings, organize a section of the basement that needs to be tidied up, think of a solution when she gets locked out of the house, and accept the consequences of not having her homework completed.
I am doing her a favor. With every minor achievement comes a sense of pride and accomplishment. These tiny achievements are what the bigger challenges and struggles are built upon. That B- isn’t the A she would have gotten if I had laboriously edited her thesis, but it was her work and she learned from the struggle it took to get that grade. It will be easier next time.
I am less resentful. It isn’t my work being graded, so I don’t take offense. I am not annoyed (irrationally) that she needs me so much – complaining about needing ME time. I don’t feel responsible for Every. Single. Thing.
It is OK to fail. It's ok for her to fail, and it's ok for me to fail. We are not omniscient just because we are grown ups. I learn from my mistakes and she can learn from hers.
She is becoming more resilient. It’s not all sunshine and roses. This moving to public school thing has had its hiccups, and she has felt defeated here and there. But, my job isn’t to keep her from feeling defeated. That’s life sometimes. My job is to be there to help her up and remind her that there’s always next time. She needs me to be there to lean on emotionally so she can fight the next fight. And the one after that. I do her no favors by keeping her on the sidelines. You can read more about resilience here.
So, what’s the take-away? Our kids need us desperately, as they always have. We have to help them learn to do things that will make them blossom into kind, thoughtful, resourceful adults. That’s our job. We are not here to pave the way with marshmallow peeps and a false sense of ability. If we do that, the first bump in the road feels like a mountain instead of a mole hill. That’s not what we want for our kids. We want them to say, “Hey. That sucked. But I learned from that experience and will use what I learned to face the next thing.”
That’s why I have only texted my daughter on her trip about a third of the time I felt the urge. It’s been hard…but I know it’s worth it.