Walking to the corner store or to school. Playing in the park or over at a neighbor’s house. Endlessly bicycling for miles from friend’s house to friend’s house down development states and main roads.
These are all things I did as a child. Neither I nor my parents ever thought twice about the amount of freedom children were given in the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s.
But somewhere after that time, parenting styles changed. And not for the better.
Today, free-range parenting is butting heads with helicopter parenting. Finally, common sense seems to be winning out over fear and overestimating the risks of actual harm to a child.
There’s no doubt that helicopter parenting is more of a parenting style in certain parts of the country, and seemingly among certain socio-economic classes. The term refers to parents who monitor (sometimes obtrusively) their kids’ and teens’ behavior through tracking apps and rigid schedules, with demands to know where their child is and with whom at all times.
Such parents generally will try to solve all of their children’s problems and protect them from all possible dangers. Reed et al. (2016) define helicopter parents as being “overly involved, protective parents who provide substantial support (e.g., financial, emotional, physical health advice) to their emerging adult children, often intervening in their affairs and making decisions for them.”
Free-range parenting, on the other hand, is more akin to the type of parenting middle-aged and older adults are used to. It’s giving your child or teen the freedom (and trust) to explore the world on their own terms and timelines. It acknowledges the amount of risk involved in this sort of freedom, but places it within context of today’s society. We’re living in the least violent times ever, with the risk of your child or teen finding harm at its lowest point in the past 25 years.
Utah, the bastion of conservatism, has said enough is enough. “Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed the ‘free-range parenting’ bill into law earlier this month after it passed unanimously in both chambers of Utah’s legislature. It’s believed to be the first such law in the United States.”
[The new law] exempts from the definition of child neglect various activities children can do without supervision, permitting ‘a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities …’
Those activities include letting children ‘walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.’ The law does not say what the ‘sufficient age’ is.
Why is such a law needed, when to many of us, this just seems like common sense?
Because parents were actually being reported to the police and child protective services (through anonymous phone calls) when a child was seen “unattended.” This puts police at the beck and call of every nervous individual who believes that every child should be parented according to only a single parenting style (theirs). With violent crime at a 25-year low, parents would benefit themselves and their children to think more critically about actual risk versus perceived risk.
Helicopter parents might respond, “Well, my child is my responsibility, which I take very seriously. I don’t want to be responsible for my children to be exposed to any possible harm when it can be readily avoided by overseeing where they are at all times.”
But such an argument ignores the facts that make such parents nervous. Most child abductions are not carried out by strangers, but by family members known and respected by the parents. Most child assaults and violence come not from outside the home by unknown criminals, but from inside the home by family members.
Most importantly, the greatest danger to your child or teen comes not from any of these nightmare scenarios, but from the one thing helicopter parents do more of than any other type of parent — driving. Your child or teen is at far greater risk of physical injury and harm by simply getting in the car with you to take a ride from school to home.
If this were simply about risk aversion, helicopter parents would be bastions of public transportation and walking.
If Not Risks, Research?
If risk aversion weren’t reason enough to abandon helicopter parenting, how about scientific data? What if the science suggests such a parenting style could result in a child with more problems down the line?
There’s not a lot of research on helicopter parenting, since it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. But what research there is suggests that it faces some challenges.
In one study of 187 college students (McGinley, 2018) found that young adults raised under a helicopter parenting style experienced fewer positive social experiences and expressed less empathy toward others. Another recent study of 297 college students (Darlow et al., 2017) found that helicopter-parented students experienced lower levels of self-efficacy and poorer college adjustment. They also experienced more anxiety and depression while in college than students who didn’t grow up under a helicopter parenting style.
In one of the largest studies examining this topic (Reed et al., 2016), 461 college students filled out questionnaires about their autonomy, health, life satisfaction, self-efficacy, depression, anxiety, and the parenting style they were raised under. After analyzing their data, the authors concluded:
A familial social environment characterized by hovering and intrusive parental behaviors may foster reliance on individuals’ parents (low autonomy) and encourage emerging adults to rely on others for guidance, rather than developing confidence in personal abilities (competence) when faced with challenging situations.
Conversely, familial social environments and parent–child interactions that encourage personal development and growth are likely to provide emerging adults with the opportunity to develop confidence and abilities.
It appears the research has been fairly consistent and clear on the negative effects of helicopter parenting. Raising a child under such a parenting style is likely to create a young adult who has less self-efficacy and feels more dependent upon their parents to help them navigate adulthood.
Teaching Independence & Self-Confidence
An independent, self-confident child is what every parent wants (or should want) to help bring into this world. Children who understand their own strengths and limitations, and know how to interact not just within their closed social peer group, but also with the greater world around them (since none of us live in a closed social environment).
This is a complex process that is learned over time and many, many social interactions — both with and without parents present. It’s not something a child learns solely in a classroom, or from reading, or from organized, scheduled activities. It comes from simple free-range play and exploration, tapping into the best components of childhood — a child’s imagination and endless curiosity about the world.
If nearly every interaction with the world around them until age 18 is with a parent present (or hovering nearby), children will generally be ill-equipped to go out into the world on their own. Simply put, most won’t have the skills necessary to handle all the world has to throw at a young adult, from disappointment and failures, to negative interactions with strangers or others. Their resiliency — the psychological ability to bounce back after a setback — will be much lower than other children’s.
If a parent truly wants what’s best for their child, they’ll keep these things in mind when determining their parenting style. It’s not just about what you’re teaching your children today, it’s what they’ll take with them from such learning for years to come.
It’s never too late to change, either. You can change your parenting style to incorporate more “free-range” experiences in your child’s life. Your anxiety is something you have to learn to deal with — don’t put that unwanted burden onto your kids or teens.
In the end, you’ll raise more resilient, stronger children who will be better-equipped to go out and make a difference in the world.
For further information
Listen to the topic via NPR’s On Point:
Darlow, V., Norvilitis, J.M. & Schuetze, P. (2017). The relationship between helicopter parenting and adjustment to college. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 2291-2298.
McGinley, M. (2018). Can hovering hinder helping? Examining the joint effects of helicopter parenting and attachment on prosocial behaviors and empathy in emerging adults. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, 179, 102-115.
Reed, Kayla; Duncan, James M.; Lucier-Greer, Mallory; Fixelle, Courtney; Ferraro, Anthony J. (2016). Helicopter parenting and emerging adult self-efficacy: Implications for mental and physical health. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25, 3136-3149.