I remember laughing when the state of Utah enacted a law two years ago making “free range parenting” legal.
First, it’s kind of hilarious that people are now talking about children as if they are livestock raised for commercial purposes. (But in a weird way, that is sort of how our society treats them.)
Second, it was entertaining to think that policymakers felt they needed to codify that parents could not be charged with neglect for such mundane things as letting their child walk home from school alone or letting an older child stay in a locked car with the air conditioning on while mum darts into the grocery store for butter. How many people could possibly be getting worked up about this stuff?
But it would seem helicopter parents – the opposite of “free-range” parents – calling Child Protective Services because they saw some other couple’s children climbing a tree and thought they were in mortal danger has become such a bureaucratic nightmare that a formal policy must be established regarding how to respond to these folks. (It would also seem that this is not merely a middle-class phenomenon, but a real problem in areas with lower income residents who are “free-range” parents out of necessity.)
As our child has grown older, I have ceased to find helicopter parents hilarious. There truly are a lot of them, and they truly are a colossal pain in the ass to be around. They do seem to make it their mission in life to ruin everything that is good and holy about childhood.
We live in a gated community that is about as safe a neighborhood as one could imagine. Neurotically so. The walls around the community are superfluous, because to break into the neighborhood one would have to trek through swamps and jungles on one side (complete with alligators and water moccasins) or take a boat across the Intracoastal Waterway on the other side. At the gates, anyone who does not live here has to present their driver’s license to a guard, who photocopies it and records their tag numbers. Then he has to call someone on his list of residents to confirm the person has business there. There are cameras everywhere. Pretty over-the-top, right?
We don’t have a problem letting our daughter – who is about to turn 8 years old – play outside, usually with our Jack Russell terrier in tow. In fact, this is part of our routine as homeschoolers. After she is finished with her school work for the day, I tell her to go run around outside. Sometimes we send her on quests. Pretty much the only thing I am afraid of is that she might encounter a venomous snake. (This is Florida, after all.) We try to teach her how to handle encounters with nature, as we are a very outdoorsy family and this is important.
But something has started happening with regular occurrence. She’ll be playing outside in our yard and a neighbor will take her by the hand and walk her back up to our front door, ring the doorbell, and tell me they “found” our daughter and wanted to let me know that she was outside unattended.
Um, duh, I sent her out there so we could get on a conference call, which you interrupted.
Okay, I was just worried about her being out there, on a pretend safari in your flowerbeds, all alone.
They do this with our dog, too. I will let him outside to go to the bathroom and then my phone gets blown up with texts about how our dog is loose… in our yard…. as if a fourteen-pound puppy is terrorizing the city like King Kong.
I have never missed having a fenced-in yard so much. Apparently one of the purposes of a fence nowadays is to give your child the privacy to have a childhood. And people complain that kids are obese and play video games all day.
When we first started homeschooling, I had other homeschooling friends tell me that one of their biggest headaches is having nosy neighbors who see your kid playing outside during “normal school hours” and threaten to report you for child abuse. Then you have to explain to the authorities that (1) your child is homeschooled and extremely well-educated, here is your curriculum, your attendance records and work samples; (2) that a homeschooled child can do more work in three hours than a child in a traditional school does in a week, and said work is already long done; and (3) the kid is allowed to play outside. In an era where every little bitty posts garbage about her neighbors on NextDoor, this has evolved into social media bullying by people you don’t even associate with as well. I didn’t believe it when they told me these horror stories, but I totally get it now.
When we sent our daughter to horse camp, I was amused that helicopter parents had sent their kids there with tiny little bottles of hand sanitizer. So they wanted their kids to have the experience of working on a farm, but farms are dirty and animals carry disease. Their experience was supposed to be muck a stall, Purell hands, muck another stall, Purell hands, give a horse a bath, Purell hands. In the 1990s, we had parodies of this behavior in As Good As It Gets and Nim’s Island. Now this is mainstream parenting.
I’ve been buying party supplies for our daughter’s birthday party, which has a dragon theme. One of her requests was for a dragon piñata. This is how I learned that the traditional piñata – that you hang from a tree branch and take a baseball bat to while blindfolded – is going out of style. I guess swinging a baseball bat at a papier-mâché animal reeks of “toxic masculinity” or something, because the new trend is having a piñata with little ropes dangling from it. Each child gets to yank on a rope – sans the traumatic, disenfranchising blindfold – that makes the animal crap candy. The piñata is no longer some violent tableau and every child gets to experience being the hero who brings the goods back to their cheering tribe. No kidding, they found a way to turn piñatas into participation trophies. Birthday parties must be radically egalitarian affairs, where every detail is negotiated so no child is threatened with even the slightest pang of negative emotions.
I can go on and on with bizarre examples of this phenomenon. What I would really like to know, however, is where it all started. Who was the primum mobile who set this trend into motion?
Is this the toxic output of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village to Raise A Child mentality? Like you have a baby and the village is suddenly up in your business 24/7 telling you how to raise it?
Was there some original trendy helicopter parent that all the soccer moms wanted to emulate?
Was there some crank child psychologist with a cult following who introduced the idea of affirmation (like, you must affirm your child’s bad decision-making and emotional state or they will inevitably become alienated, depressed, and suicidal, and you’ll have to live with the fact that it all started with a piñata) and micromanaged rites of passage?
Is this simply one of those things that comes with living in a decadent society, where people have so much material security that they have to invent increasingly bizarre perceived threats?