Helicopter vs. Free-Range Parenting

Today’s guest poster, Brian Jones,  has attempted an honest discussion about two very different parenting approaches. Please weigh in with your thoughts – what do you think? Which approach leads to better-adjusted kids?

Parenting is one of the toughest jobs in the world. After all, as a parent, you are in charge of shaping and preparing your children to become useful members of society. Today, many theories abound which attempt to distinguish the best method of child rearing. The parenting philosophy spectrum contains a wide range of options, yet the two at opposing ends are the most controversial those being the helicopter and the free-range parent.

Below we will outline what each style entails and determine what type of parenting is, in fact, better for children:

The helicopter parent

The helicopter parent is so named because their actions tend to mimic that of a helicopter. In other words, they hover around their children so much that the children are unable to make their own choices or do anything for themselves. Although these helicopter parentsparents are typically found hovering over their younger children, even older children or teens can have parents with helicopter tendencies.

Examples of helicopter parents include intervening in a playground scuffle instead of allowing the children an opportunity to stand up for themselves, signing the child up for various activities in which they have no interest or even, and this is something people have actually done, research different types of home security monitoring equipment to keep track of the kids’ comings and goings.

The actions of a helicopter parent tend to embarrass their children as they are made to feel perpetually inadequate to decide anything for themselves. Their parents have total control over every single aspect of their lives.

The result of this type of parenting typically goes one of two ways. The first potential outcome is an adult who has such low confidence levels that they do not even attempt to complete tasks themselves. Instead, they constantly ask for help as this is how they have grown accustomed to life working. These adults will make poor employees since they show no self-ambition or confidence in their abilities. Moreover, they tend to be fearful since their parents always presented everything in their life as a potential danger.

The second potential outcome for a child raised by a helicopter parent is the child going the total opposite way and rebelling against everything they were taught to think or believe. In some cases, an adult child will even cut themselves off from their controlling parents as a means of making their life their own.


Free-range parenting

Free-range parenting is as far from helicopter parenting that a parent could go. This style of parenting treats children as young adults who are free range childrencapable of making mature decisions themselves. Moreover, free-range parents tend to rely on others around them to help keep their children disciplined. Where helicopter parents plan each aspect of their child’s life, the free-range parent will likely not make decisions regarding any aspect of their child’s life.

These parents often do not make their children finish a sport they started if they decide they no longer want to participate. Moreover, there is no pushing a child to do better at school, behave kindly to others or even to go to school in some cases. This method, of course, is much broader than the examples previously mentioned.

Lenore Skenazy a columnist at the New York Sun brought free-range parenting front and center when she wrote about permitting her 9-year-old son to ride the Subway system in New York City alone. Skenazy received many criticisms by those who thought her actions were reckless, dangerous and irresponsible. However, there were some parents who agreed that kids should have more freedom than they were being given by most parents.


What style is best?

In theory, both parenting styles offer some positive aspects. However, neither is guaranteed to create the ideal environment for a child to grow and learn. Children need age-appropriate supervision and responsibilities, meaning that the correct style of parenting would be somewhere in between these two extremes.

For example, a great way to keep up with older kids without them feeling smothered is texting them after school to inquire about their afternoon plans or having a family wide predetermined plan of action as far as what a child should do after school and when they should be home. Most phone companies have family plans that make this possible and help children feel a little more independent.

When kids are younger, it is important for parents stay involved, but there are some things where it’s okay to take a step back. The main idea is to be involved and caring without overstepping boundaries. In addition, boundaries must be widened as kids continue to grow. After all, how can they learn to take care of themselves when they go off to college or move out if their parents always do everything for them?

In conclusion, the goal is to care about the child enough to inquire about their lives and encourage them to achieve greatness while respecting their wishes when it comes to healthy boundaries and choices that they are capable of making. The most important and probably the hardest thing about parenting is enabling and empowering.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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2 Responses to Helicopter vs. Free-Range Parenting

  1. gingerbeard May 12, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    This is not an either or. Both are bad.
    Overseeing every aspect of your child’s life does not allow them to develop or learn. Abdicating responsibility for your children behaviour, does not help them as they often cannot assess consequences on their own at young ages.

    The best form of parenting is in the middle. Yes by all means allow children to commute when they are old enough. Is 9 too young to travel the subway on their own? Not sure, that is a decision we all face, determining if our child is ready for the risk and responsibilities of any activity.
    A friend of ours had free-range children. Their eldest would grab food from the fridge and eat under the dinning room table, then not participate in dinner. Another allowed her 3 year old daughter to climb up on the dinning room table and dance on it. Neither of these examples benefited the kids. While I agree that one should not stifle creativity, setting boundaries is acceptable. So yes let her dance to her hearts content, but not twirl 4 feet off the ground where any fall will result in her being hurt, potentially seriously; and on a sarcastic note, as a father teaching my 3 year old daughter to “table dance” is not the path I want her going down. As for the little forager, this unsociable behaviour grew into a lot of behavioural problems his parents ended up having to deal with when he became a teenager.

    The other side we have seen are children not allowed to walk alone to school or play outside unsupervised well into their pre-teen years. They then have had huge dependency issues into university, or become rebellious towards any involvement with their parents.

    Each of us has to find the balance. Does my 8 year old get to stop practising piano part way though a session. No, she made a commitment to her teacher and herself, and our responsibility as her parents is to encourage her to stick to her promise. To learn the value and the responsibility of giving your word when you say you will do something. But the other part is, she does get to decide if she wants to take lessons next session, or change to Karate, or another activity. Does she get to play outside without our constant watching, yes, as long as if she is going to a friends or somewhere else she lets us know before she goes.

    Parenting is a responsibility. We are responsible to help our children learn how to decide. Sometimes it means stepping back and letting them learn on their own, sometimes it means stepping up and helping them face choices they don’t want to make. Sometimes it means protecting them from consequences, sometimes it means letting them face them on their own or with our help. But not allowing children the chance to grow independently by always being there to solve everything for them is as detrimental as never being there to help your child learn the importance of seeing things though. After all we made the choice to be parents, we have to then address the associated responsibilities.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel May 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      @gingerbeard, Very true. Sometimes that balance is hard to find, but it’s a must for all of us. Too often, parents either don’t give their enough freedom or they give them too much – and neither one is ideal.

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