Free Range vs. Helicopter Parents

Back when “free range” meant nothing more than a type of chicken, apparently I was a free range parent.

When I shopped at the local convenience store, I left my young children strapped in their car seats. When they headed to the school playground on their bikes, I let Hilary and Ryan play there unsupervised, sometimes for hours. Starting when he was about ten years old, when I had meetings or errands, and even sometimes when he was sick, Ryan stayed home alone.

At the mall, I’d leave my children unsupervised in the toy section. No cell phones, no back-up plan, and probably no identification either.

It gets better.

Occasionally when Ryan was home alone, he was in charge of his little sister.

Granted, we lived in a rural Maine town, I worked up the road, my aunt lived next door, and my parents lived down the road, but still, from a very early age, partly out of necessity and partly out of benign design, my kids often fended for themselves.

Nowadays I’d be charged with neglect, but back in the nineties — before cell phones, before Amber Alerts, and before our society went wacky with the mindset that parents must monitor every move their kids make, I reared my children pretty much as my parents did me.

When my then-adolescent son returned an out-of-the-blue, unprovoked punch during a recess altercation, I stayed out of it. Even though I was Ryan’s teacher and even though he was suspended for the rest of the day, and therefore could not attend that night’s school dance, I did not come to his defense.

I chaperoned the dance that night and several parents expressed dismay that Ryan had been unfairly punished. I didn’t see it that way. The school rule was that if you threw a punch, no matter the circumstances, you’d pay a consequence, and in this case, the consequence was pretty darn minor. Besides, my seventh grader didn’t need a lifeline from his mom; he needed a life lesson. And in this case the lesson was clear: Sometimes life isn’t fair and sometimes you have to deal with it.

When parents teach their children that every slight must be avenged, every wrong must be righted, and every little mistake remedied, they promote the skewed and damaging view that “rescue missions” will solve their problems. In my experience, many of these children become emotionally under-developed adolescents and adults who find it challenging to take responsibility, to learn to trust themselves, or to do something as simple and as important, as letting go of life’s little irritants.

When the occasional helicopter parent whirs into my classroom, I brace myself for the blamefest that’s sure to follow. These are the parents who craft implausible “no homework” excuses, who ask for unnecessary work extensions, and who take the blame when their child misplaces a book or assignment. These are the parents who say it’s not their child’s fault he stayed up all night playing video games.
These are also the parents who do their kids’ homework to perfection— and who think I won’t notice.

And when a behavior issue involving another child occurs, these are the parents who can be counted on to ask, “But what about the other kid?” Because, for these people, it’s almost always the other kid.

In my profession, of course I have to tread lightly with all parents and I have to find polite ways to urge them to let their children learn from their mistakes and to let them function more independently. Although this seems like Parenting 101, I’m amazed at the number of mothers and fathers who cannot back off from their children’s lives.

Twenty-five years ago, at my son’s kindergarten orientation, just before his excited classmates headed out for a practice school bus run, Ryan told me he didn’t want me with him on the bus. For a second I was startled and maybe a little hurt.

But as Ryan’s little legs carried him up the school bus steps and into a seat by himself, it was a proud moment for this mom — because I knew then my “free range” son was safely on his way.

Lynn Bonsey

About Lynn Bonsey

Who knew that in my sixties, I’d be simultaneously dealing with adolescent angst, adult children, and elder care? Days, I teach middle level students to read and write. Nights and weekends, I often spend with my father and mother who live in separate facilities in separate towns. My two siblings and I collaborate to ensure our parents’ quality care, which requires patience, vigilance, and constant advocacy. In the midst of all this, I lean on my husband, a retired educator, to keep me sane and happy.