Helicopter parenting: when parents hover and drop the ladder to rescue their children from challenging situations that may lead to some type of failure.
It’s been looming overhead for me lately. Specifically, with regard to “social failure” I’ve been questioning my involvement in the lives of my kindergarten twins. “Work it out on your own” is easy enough to throw out when siblings squawk about who did what to whom. Unless a Sharpie marker or saliva are involved, I am a very fair mother, laissez-faire. I abstain from the whines and tattling until pushing comes to shove. I do this at home, with play dates even, where another child will tell me how my child won’t share. “Work it out boys.” Do they? Eventually, yes. But it’s not always pretty. It’s even worse with girls.
I won’t be your friend anymore.
I won’t sit next to you.
I will tell everyone at school how mean you are.
It is then that I want to steer the helicopter over the threatening valley of social death, to facilitate the negotiations. Aren’t they capable of working through this on their own? Or do I really want to swoop in because I, a former fat kid nicknamed Moose, fear what social outcasting lies ahead for my children? Quick, let’s make nice with everyone so you’re not deemed an undesirable. How much of it is my own ego, wanting polite, kind children? Don’t children need to learn WHY it’s important to be kind (because it will make you feel good, and there are social circumstances when you are unkind, because every choice you make will shape your karmic future), rather than striving to be seen as “good” (hungry for praise)?
I am in the habit of apologizing to my children and spouse when I am in the wrong. If I catch myself raising my voice, I actually do apologize, tell my children I’m frustrated, but that it’s no reason to get loud, that I will work on it. That I’m sorry. I try to model the behavior for them, that I’m quick to correct myself, quick to take things back if I say something silly. But somehow this seems like a different type of apology than one made between friends.
What if we didn’t insist our child apologize when she hurts someone’s feelings? They’re empty words, even when you pound home the point that they wouldn’t like it done to them. If anything, it feels shaming, a scolding. “Now you apologize to him, right now.” That’s what the child really learns, a habit, but true remorse doesn’t come from shaming or from the quick and practiced apology. It comes from seeing consequences, from empathy, and it is from there that character is built.
But how does this play out on the sidelines of the soccer field, with a crowd of parents standing within earshot when your son’s friend approaches to tell you he’s upset that your son won’t share the ball? He’s telling you because he wants you to fix it, tattling, wanting you to insert your big stick. But I won’t do it. Or, perhaps he’s come to tell you that your son refuses to accept his apology, that he realizes he wasn’t nice earlier and that he’s said sorry, and still your child won’t accept the apology. I’ve tried crouching down and explaining the “shoulds” to my children. Talked about grace and how things circle back, how would we want to be treated, all that. But what if I stop that type of trying?
I realize this might mean I fail socially, that parents who’ve overheard our interaction will judge me as an unfit parent. “That must feel really lousy. I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m sure you two will figure a way to work it out.” Because, “He said he’s sorry, so you need to be a big person and accept the apology and be friends (IF ONLY FOR MY SAKE)” really isn’t working.
If I worry about my own ego and social standing among my peers, (please be friends, so I can spend more time with his mom) I fail my kids. If I swoop in and try to rescue my children from failure, social or otherwise, that’s my fail too. When they’re capable or at least capable of trying to work it out, I’ve got to let them, even if I hate the consequences. Building character in kids builds your own character as an adult, and it ain’t always pretty. I feel like the bitch mom, and I’m learning that I need to be okay with that. Okay, I don’t know what I’m learning. I don’t know what the right thing is to do, only that I’m circling near it and hope to land on the helipad soon.