Are You a Helicopter or Free-Range Parent?

How to determine the parenting style that works best for you.


Published:

Consider the morning routines of two families:

In the Smith household, each child grabs a bagel before running out the door, late, to catch the bus. Halfway down the driveway, one child remembers the science project he worked on by himself the night before, runs back, grabs it and makes it to the bus stop — three blocks over and one block up — by running through his neighbor’s yard, arriving just in time.

In the Jones household, the parents wake their kids and double-check their backpacks to make sure the homework they coached their children through the night before is still inside, completed. Then they pile into the car to drive three houses down to wait for the bus. Once the bus reaches the stop, the kids are outside for no more than 20 seconds before they’re off to school. Mrs. Jones reminds herself to call the teachers to see how her kids are progressing in the curriculum.

We all fall somewhere on the parenting continuum, which ranges from “helicopter” parenting on one extreme to “free range” or “permissive” parenting on the other. While these labels may seem off-putting, they are actually quite apt.

“These parenting styles in their pure form will both likely result in creating anxious, depressed, low-self-esteem or defiant children, to name a few of the potential problems,” says Leslie Petruk, director of The Stone Center for Counseling & Leadership in Charlotte.

So where do you fall? And are there benefits and drawbacks to each?


Chopper, Chopper

The term “helicopter parenting” first appeared in the 1967 book “Between Parent and Teenager” by Dr. Haim Ginott, and referred to parents who hover over their children like helicopters. Fast forward to 2011 and the behavior became common enough among parents to merit an actual dictionary entry.

Although laden with negative connotations, helicopter parenting has its roots in firm logic. After all, today’s kids are exposed to new dangers and situations that weren’t around “back in the old days.” Social media bullying, for example, didn’t exist. Without parents’ watchful eyes and helpful input, it’s easy for today’s kids to be overrun by it.

“I consider myself a helicopter parent,” says Juanyetta Beasley, an Apex mom of a 6-year-old boy. Though she doesn’t hover, she does try to stay aware of her son’s interactions with other children.

“He loves other kids, and the first thing he wants to do is hug a person when he sees them,” Beasley says. “Other children and parents are not always receptive to a lone child approaching their kid in this manner.”

Beasley likes to stay close by to redirect her son or smooth any ruffled feathers. She’s found the balance between watchful and waiting.

In situations involving hardcore helicoptering parents, sometimes kids don’t get the chance to develop skills they need to grow into adults.

“Parents who believe their job is to prevent their child from being upset or hurt are doing their child a great disservice (by) not allowing (him or her) to learn how to resolve conflict,” Petruk says.

Instead, empower your child to handle the challenges — then step out of the way. Otherwise, your desire to help can end up backfiring.

“You’re taking power away from your child, in a sense,” says Sharon Dempsey, owner of Integrated Behavioral Health Solutions in Greensboro.


Permission Granted

On the other end of the continuum is “free range” or “permissive” parenting. Free-range parents are more likely to give their child lots of free rein. Charlotte mom Erika Lanning considers herself free range.

“On the playground, I try to let him do his own thing,” she says. “And if I see him getting in a little argument with another kid, I’ll sit back for a little bit and see where it goes instead of trying to jump right in.”

Her approach isn’t always appreciated by other, more intense parents. “I’ve had certain parents kind of give me looks, waiting for me to step in,” she says.

On the plus side, free range parenting gives kids an opportunity to make their own choices and handle the consequences. When it’s taken to the extreme, however, it can have unintended drawbacks.

“Children don’t have the cognitive ability to make all of their own decisions and be left to their own devices,” Petruk says. They want to look to you as a parent to help guide them. And if you’re not there or acting indifferent? “This will likely result in a sense of insecurity and abandonment,” she says.


Where’s the Balance?

Most of us aren’t so easily defined by either the “helicopter” or “free range” label. That’s because for some parenting tasks — for example, how children behave as guests in other homes — you might lean toward the helicopter side of things. You wouldn’t let your child, say, ransack the neighbor’s pantry looking for treats.

On the other hand, you might be more inclined to stray toward free-range territory on some school matters, like letting your child deal with the consequences of missing homework, for example.

“The middle ground between these two parenting styles is the most effective way to raise healthy, happy children,” says Petruk.

It’s best to try to take as objective of an approach as possible. If your parenting style is starting to cause problems for your child, be honest with yourself and consider easing up a bit.


Kathleen M. Reilly is a writer and mom in the Triangle. Visit her online at kathleenreilly.com.


Are You a Free-Range or Helicopter Parent?

Take this informal quiz to see where you fall on the parenting-style spectrum.

1. Would you feel comfortable having your elementary-age child walk to a friend's house in the neighborhood alone?

2. Would you let your 10-year-old walk to the bus stop each morning alone?

3. Would you allow your 9-year-old to use the oven and stove if you are in the yard?

4. Has your child gone swimming at the beach or at a pool without you?

5. Does your child climb trees, ride skateboards, or play on high playground equipment without you close by?

If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you might resonate with free-range style of parenting. If you answered “absolutely not” to most of these, you might be comfortable with helicopter or at least remote-controlled-airplane style of parenting.

Source: Dr. Kristen Wynns, Wynns Family Psychology, Raleigh.

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