Trust the Bungee Cord -- On being a 'helicopter dad'

My son is a typical boy. He’s the one who checks everything out. He loves to run, jump, climb and get dirty. He is an explorer. As a parent, I’m happy to see his enthusiasm but find myself holding my breath with his general lack of restraint.

Summertime means outdoors and that is like a magnet for potential disaster. One of our favorite spots is Eldorado Canyon and its hiking trails. Being the boy he was, Max would run ahead on the trail each time we visited staying just within sight. He clambered up and over anything and everything even remotely close to the path from boulders to logs. Of course on one visit, Max then age 5, found an obstacle he couldn’t surmount. He tumbled. He yelped. Then he wailed.

With that lump in the throat feeling every parent knows, I ran as fast as I could to him. By the time I reached him, though, he was smiling ear to ear and already back on his feet ready to try getting over that boulder again despite the scrapes on his hands and knees.

I held him back. There was no way I was going to let a tumble like that happen again. I wanted to know why he could just avoid those obstacles. Why couldn’t he just take the path cleared for him, nice and easy just the way the Forest Service intended? Going forward, he would hold my hand and walk around anything in his path.

I’d heard of helicopter parents before. To me, they were some lunatic fringe who micromanage their children’s lives. They battle coaches over playing time and teachers over every grade. They outlaw balls on school playgrounds. There were stories of parents who monitored online school cameras to see their child move from class to class. One mother is even said to have attended and participated in her son’s first post-college job interview. A simple urban legend? Maybe.

In promising to clear a path of any obstacles and make sure my son would never endure the pain of skinned knees, how was I any different than that hovering mom at a piano recital on pins and needles fearing any mistake will cause a titter in the audience and irreparable harm to her daughter’s psyche? That’s what the “helicopter” dad or the “hummingbird” mom is trying to do: clear a path for their child to never experience disappointment or pain either physical or emotional. There are no scrapes or bruises either to the knee or ego.

Was I turning into that guy who wanted to Bubble Wrap his kids and ensure a completely antiseptic childhood? Did I really want to insulate them from the world? I could see there was a line I might easily slide a toe over myself. It’s the natural urge for all of us to want to protect our children. The helicopter parent was an anomaly not so very long ago. We didn’t see them when we were growing up. But now they are like prairie dogs popping up to take the fun out of childhood. So, this hovering impulse goes beyond simply wanting to protect our kids. We hover because we’ve made parenting a profession. What our kids do more than ever speaks about our abilities as parents.

What was I robbing from my son besides the pain by holding him back? The chance to fail, to stand back up, wipe himself off and try again. I was cheating him out of his passion and enthusiasm. I was stealing those childhood milestones gained through trial and error.

There is very little meaning in life when we don’t live it ourselves. The result can be low self-esteem and stunted maturity. But the opportunity to overcome an obstacle on his own has significant value. It’s possible, probable even, that those successes are more valuable than the ones that we set out before them, those so-called challenges that are always measured, safe, predetermined and without the possibility of failure, disappointment or pain.

Ask any marathon finisher if there is more magnitude in running 26.2 miles rather than driving it. Any way you cover that distance, the result is the same. To paraphrase Robert Frost, how you got there makes all the difference.

The smile and the eagerness on my son’s face was my wakeup call. I let his hand go, and he tried again. Of course, he fell again, but only with a whimper. After a couple more times of boy versus boulder, Max made it over.

No more helicopter parenting for me. Each time one of my kids stumbles, I remind myself to weigh the situation. If he isn’t in physical danger, let him struggle through it and come out smiling in the end. If he is in danger, I swoop in, grab him and pull him out. Just call me a “Bungee Cord” dad.

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