Helicopter Parenting vs. Free-Range Parenting: How To Strike A Balance So Your Child Benefits

helicopter parenting
Keeping your kids too close can be just as bad as giving them too much freedom. Striking a balance is key. Adam Berry/Getty Images

The Zen masters of the far east have a proverb: There was a young man who went walking on the path outside his village and stepped on a thorn. After he removed it, he vowed forever after to hop on one leg whenever he walked outside the village to avoid getting another thorn in that foot.

That's kind of how overprotective parenting works. Past decades have given rise to these two schools of thought in parenting: Helicopter parents, who hover over their children trying to shelter them from anything remotely unpleasant, and free-range parents, who let their children run wild in the world in a sink-or-swim philosophy.

As with many issues in life, you can go wrong by going to either extreme.

The Helicopter Parent: Protection at all costs

The urge to protect our offspring is baked into the human brain's deepest instincts. Both mother and father experience it, from the moment of birth onward. This is an important survival instinct; it's found throughout nature for most species. And naturally, we should have to step in and guide our children through the major hazards of the world.

Vigilant parents who try to guard against every possible mishap quickly find themselves exhausted, however, so they turn to outside help, which is where it starts to get difficult. Some parents start demanding that because their child has peanut allergies, nobody else in the world should be allowed to pack a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. To relieve them of the responsibility of supervising the child's playtime, warning labels and safety mechanisms have to be on everything. Media has to be censored so no child is exposed to an upsetting image. Critics of these parents, meanwhile, point out that legislating a foam-padded world to protect children from every bee sting or upsetting image creates a "nanny state."

The Free-Range Parent: Born free

Opponents of helicopter parenting argue that our world, at least in the industrial first world, is safe enough already. But when we shelter children too much, we stunt their growth, retard their ability to cope with adversity later in life, and even cripple their immune system. Studies have shown, for instance, that children raised in a sterile environment are more prone to illness when compared to children raised in less germaphobic conditions, whose immune systems have had a chance to prepare for any kind of infection they encounter.

Free-range parents are the ones letting their kids walk home from school, using their own set of keys to let themselves in the house. They have a cell phone, goes the reasoning, and they can call if there's trouble. Free-range children are raised to be independent and self-sufficient. You can forget those parental controls on TV and the internet: The reasoning goes that the child will be exposed to the worst the world has to offer soon enough; better to let them encounter it now while they have a parent around to talk about it. As for the child's social life, they're on their own in that regard too, usually free to stay over at a friend's house for the night with nary a phone call to check in. Critics of free-range parents claim that children are exposed to more strife in the world than they can cope with, or grow up to become undisciplined brats.

Pros and cons

One clearly visible difference in a helicopter child versus a free-range child is in the child's development. A child who is raised to be independent and fend for themselves wherever possible will show better decision-making skills, better creative thinking, more confidence, fantastic social skills, and an overall "tougher" outlook on life. However, some children do not do well with liberal parenting. The ones who don't grow up frustrated and insecure, and have difficulty forming trusting personal relationships — a result of having no one to teach them how to maintain a relationship.

As for helicopter children, they tend to grow up with higher self-esteem, a deep appreciation for a safe society, and more conservative ideals in their decisions. Not to mention they certainly have a greater chance of navigating childhood unscathed. But children who don't take well to too much protective parenting also grow up naive and become an easy target for anyone taking advantage of them. Some of them may even develop anxiety or resentment being "smothered" by their parent, and, for the latter at least, develop an extreme rebellious streak.

The argument for moderation

The most sensible path is in the moderate mean between the extremes. When making your parenting decisions from day to day, you should always ask yourself, "Does my child need more support and guidance?" and "Is it time for me to back off and let my kid handle this on their own?"

Know that it is impossible for you to win every conflict with your child; you need to find a midway that works well for both of you. For this, it is important that you pick your battles wisely and fight them out well with your child. For example, instead of arguing, engage in diplomatic tactics when, say, your kid insists on walking to school alone. Sure, you think it’s unsafe but you can always drive and drop them at a spot nearby from where they can be on their own. You must also trust your child and leave the decision to them at times. Explain your point of view and let them take over from there. They may not get it right most often but this will translate as an important learning experience for them. Also hear them out to understand how they feel — kids love it when they know their parents care about their feelings.

As for controlling media consumption, this is almost impossible in the first place. Lock down your television with parental controls, and your child will simply watch TV secondhand at their friend's house or learn about all the forbidden stuff at school. In the information age, information will always fight to be free.

Knowing when to pick your battles is key. By all means, stop your toddler from sticking the forks in the electrical outlet, and intervene when your preteen seems tempted to experiment with drugs and sex. But at the same time, deliberately letting an adverse situation play out (as long as the child can't seriously be hurt) can sometimes be an important lesson. Learn when your child has these opportunities, and take them when you can.

There is a world of difference between the child who was told repeatedly not to tease the cat and the one who did and got a painful scratch for their lesson.

Malini Bhatia is the founder of  Marriage.com, a website dedicated to providing value in every marriage by offering resources, information and a community that supports healthy, happy marriages. Malini has global experience in international management and communications, and lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 11 years and two daughters.

 

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