Confessions of a (Reformed) Helicopter Mom

Last weekend, my husband I were totally flummoxed by a robin who crashed into our dining room window over and over again.

We were desperate to help. We tried taping paper over the two window panes the bird favored, but the bird simply chose other window panes to attack. In total, that robin flew into our window about a hundred times, based on the number of beak marks left on the glass. Shades of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, I said, shuddering. The definition of insanity, my husband said, shaking his head.

Then we found the nest in a nearby tree.

Aha! The bird was not evil. The bird was not unwell. The bird was simply an overprotective parent. In a complete overreaction, the robin was protecting its three babies from something (its reflection?) or someone (us?) that was never a threat.

The bizarre incident started me thinking about the similarities between that robin and me. How many times did I behave strangely, in the ruse of protecting my young children from “danger” that didn’t actually exist?

Oh, where to begin! When my son was a toddler, he was desperate to go down the playground slide by himself. I didn’t think he was old enough. When he finally wriggled out of my grasp and climbed up the ladder so fast I couldn’t catch him, I held my breath as he whooshed down the slide, landing triumphantly on his tiny feet. The look of joy and satisfaction on his face was unforgettable. Did I feel silly? You bet. 

And when his kindergarten teacher announced that the kids in her classroom would be carving their own jack-o’-lanterns (with carving knives designed for kids, but, hey, they were still SHARP!), I was one of several mothers who worried aloud. But my son loved the activity and felt a real sense of accomplishment–and still has all ten fingers.

So, as you can probably guess, I’m one of those moms who would likely resist letting her kids play in an environment described in this article in The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid.” The play space the author describes is a far cry from traditional playgrounds. Here, kids engage with objects such as spare tires and discarded boats. The idea is to encourage kids to create their own kinds of play, take risks, and meet challenges of their own, on their own. The message is that if adults are too directive and overly protective, it’s harder for kids to develop curiosity, courage, and confidence.

As my kids grew older, so did my understanding of this idea. I had to work hard at not becoming a helicopter mom, always hovering. Although I thought they were too young, I swallowed the lump in my throat, smiled brightly, and put them on planes unaccompanied to visit long-distance grandparents. In later years, they enjoyed fun-filled weeks at sleep-away camp (with strangers!), while at home I worried about one of them falling out of a canoe or into a campfire. But even as I was hyper-aware that sometimes bad things happen, I also knew that the odds that they’d be safe were heavily in my favor.

Like baby birds, kids need short solo flights before they’re ready to leave the nest. They need practice being independent and judging risks.

It all sounds so simple. Even obvious. But it’s anything but. Thoughtful parents spend a lot of time pondering where to draw the line, and we all draw it differently. Do you feel you give your children enough freedom to develop a healthy sense of independence, confidence, and courage? How can we be sure we’re not unnecessarily protecting our offspring, banging our head against glass like, well, a bird brain?  What do you think?

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families.  She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.