Parenting with a PhD: Free-Range vs. Helicopter Parents

By Kristen Berthiaume:

You’ve probably heard of free-range chickens – those raised with some freedom to roam so they’re happier and less-stressed (and more delicious – apparently cortisol isn’t all that tasty) but did you know there are also free-range kids? “Free-Range Parenting” is a term first coined in a 2010 book to describe a more hands-off parenting approach than is generally found in today’s society. Several Free-Range Kids have been in the news recently: a nine-year-old allowed to ride the New York subway by himself; 8-year-old children babysitting their younger siblings; a 1st grader left to play at the park alone. If these examples remind you of your own childhood, you’re not alone. On any given afternoon, we were running through the neighborhood, with no expectation of coming home until dinner. I remember walking with friends to a wooded area near our house where we’d sometimes find evidence that someone had been living there. And we told our parents. And no one freaked out. And we were allowed to go back. The argument is frequently made that the world was a safer place back then but research doesn’t really support that explanation. In fact, some studies show that kidnappings by strangers are lower now than in the 1970s and 1980s when many of us were kids. The idea behind Free-Range Parenting is that society has become “too careful” and that, in reality, children are not in danger every second of their lives. I think most parents would agree that giving our children some freedom allows them to make, and learn from mistakes and helps them grow into more confident, capable, and independent adults; however, the degree to which a parent allows their kids this freedom is what varies between a Free-Range and a typical approach. Free-Range Parenting is frequently defined as the antithesis to “Helicopter Parenting” – the very, very, very hands-on approach to parenting characterized by what might be considered over-involvement in kids’ lives and relationships. Surely some names come to mind as you mentally scroll through your friend list: the moms who volunteer for everything their children do; the dads whose faces turn purple from yelling so much at their kids’ sporting events. The media often describes children of Helicopter Parents “over-scheduled” and “over-supervised.” Parents may “hover” over their kids out of fear that something catastrophic will happen or to help ensure that their offspring will be on the “right” track in life (i.e., the best preschool, beneficial extracurricular activities, a positive peer group, etc.). On the flip side, children with very involved parents are often high-achieving and take good advantage of resources available to them.

There are potential problems with both parenting styles. Free-Range Parenting can be associated with valid safety concerns. Some children, despite their age and maturity in certain areas, still aren’t ready to handle tough or novel situations on their own and may not exhibit appropriate judgment without adult guidance. Safety research indicates that parents are frequently unaware of the key dangers their children face on a daily basis (e.g., automobile accidents, drowning, etc.) and may over- focus on less likely scenarios (e.g., stranger abduction). Even if a parent has seen her child handle a situation appropriately in the past, there could be new factors that lead her to make a poor choice. For example, just because your six-year-old walks straight home alone from school every day doesn’t mean she’ll know what to do when an older kid encourages her to go to the park instead. In addition, when supervision is less frequent, parents may not be as aware of the peer and media influences on their kids or social and psychological could go unnoticed. Helicopter Parenting can prevent children from learning from mistakes, leading them to feel unable to handle situations on their own. This approach might not adequately prepare kids to deal with heartbreak, disappointment, and difficult situations in adolescence and adulthood. In addition, children of overly involved parents may exhibit anxiety if they feel as if  they’re constantly in danger or needing to meet certain standards to please their parents.

So, where do you fall on this spectrum? Compare yourself to friends and other moms you know. Are you more lenient or more strict? Are you more aware of what’s going on with your child or kind of oblivious? Think about the stress you experience on a daily basis. Does most it come from situations involving your child or from elsewhere? Much like those quizzes you used to take in teen magazines (“How possessive are you?”), the “best” category for most of us is probably somewhere in the middle. It’s important that we be aware of where our kids are and what they’re doing and, if they’re under four, immature, or prone to behavioral issues, they should be where we can see them. We need to allow our kids to struggle with problems that arise: how to share a toy with her friend; how to fit Legos together to build a ship; how to clean up the milk he spilled. We should be slow to step in unless there’s an emergency. If your child asks for help, can you provide verbal clues for her instead of taking over entirely? If your child makes up his bed but does a sloppy job, how necessary is it really that you re-make it? One of the most valuable things we can do is talk to our kids after they have tried – successfully or unsuccessfully – to handle a situation for themselves. What went well? What didn’t go well? What could they have done differently? By debriefing after the fact, you’re letting your child know that you were there and observed what was going on. Reinforce your child’s efforts. Empathize if your child felt frustrated and explain that you didn’t step in because you felt she deserved a chance to try and handle it on her own.

Disclaimer: Sometimes, we develop our parenting style based on what we intuit that our kids need and different kid personalities pull for us to be more/less involved. Kids with special needs may require more advocacy and assistance from their parents whereas very independent and curious kids probably do better when given lots of room to wander and discover. Most all kids need some freedom, and a chance to make mistakes and figure things out for themselves. All kids under 18 need some degree of supervision and guidance (and some kids need supervision and guidance well after age 18…). If what you’re doing seems to be working well and there have been no major problems, your style is probably a good fit for your child. Challenge for Free-Range Parents: Consider areas where your supervision may be a little lax and brainstorm ideas for shoring it up. Observe your child when she is acting independently to determine if she’s handling situations the way you assume she would. Challenge for Helicopter Parents: Think about the kind of adult you’d like your child to be. If you said “happy” and “capable,” consider ways that your parenting style might interfere with those goals. If your kid is asking you to back off or seems fearful to try new things without you, those are red flags that you may be doing too much. Try bowing out and watching how your son does without your help – he may surprise you! If this feels too hard for you, consider if your own anxiety is interfering and needs to be addressed.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *