The dual faces of helicopter parenting

I had lunch at my younger daughter’s elementary school today.  I am blessed to live and work within a half mile (10 minute bike ride) of her school and even more blessed that my job as a self-employed attorney gives me the flexibility to take time from work on slow days to have lunch with her.

When I was a grade schooler, some forty years ago, it was unheard of for parents to come to elementary school just to “hang out.”  I dreaded my parents coming to school when I was a youth, for it meant that I had misbehaved and would soon be punished for my transgression.  Yet now parents routinely have lunch with their children at school and there will typically be a few (2 to 5) other parents having lunch with their children when I am having lunch with mine.

I find a parent having lunch with his or her child at school to be a lovely gesture if done occasionally.  One nice thing about contemporary helicopter parenting is that it communicates to your children “you are loved,” “you are treasured,” “I enjoy spending time with you.” When I represent a parent in a custody or visitation case who has routinely come to the child’s school for lunch I always highlight that fact because I think it communicates quite clearly that this parent wants to be a frequent presence in the child’s life.  I try to do lunch–which includes recess–with my daughter two to four times a month: just frequently enough to make it seem special but not so frequently that it keeps her from developing friendships at recess.

Of course, this helicopter parenting can be taken to extreme.  I sometimes encounter parents in custody cases who are at the child’s school for lunch well over half the time, sometimes almost daily.  To me this reeks of boundary issues: the child is prevented from developing  independence and denied a life that does not involve his or her parents.  In my experience such parents do not do well in family court (or do well in raising happy socially adjusted children).

But the same factors that motivate parents to come to have lunch with their children at school are also driving parents to reduce the potential for risk or injury in their children’s lives.  This is the other face of helicopter parenting.  I frequently play with my daughter and her classmates at recess (one big gender difference: dads mostly play at recess; moms mostly watch–the moms who play have my utmost admiration).  The kids like shooting hoops or jumping rope.  Before tag was banned they would play a freeform tag game in which I was supposed to chase all of them at once except when they were trying to tag me.  One happy little boy frequently suggests we play “the tickle game.” I have no idea what this game entails but I have defended enough parents facing sexual abuse allegations to know better than to engage in any activity called “the tickle game” with a child whose parents don’t know me.  I sometime wonder what “the tickle game” is and who he plays it with.

My daughter’s taken a recent interest to frisbee and lacrosse and I suspected frisbee would be less likely to cause injuries on the playground, so today I brought a frisbee with me.  Playing frisbee with the children would be fun and I could teach them how to throw and catch.  Understanding concerns over liability, I knew to clear frisbee playing with teachers before recess began.  They told me that I needed to clear it with the principal, so off to the principal’s office I went (recalling the terror that such a trip would have inspired forty years ago).  The principal noted that the school had banned frisbee playing at recess because children were getting banged on the head.  She offered that I could play frisbee with my daughter but could not let the other students join in.

After a few minutes of frisbee playing, other children were standing around observing. Given the principal’s concern with children getting banged on the head by an errant frisbee, I figured I’d better okay the watching with her and see if I could get permission to teach students to throw the frisbee so long as they did not attempt to catch it.  Back to the principal I went.

I pity the modern public school principal.  Balancing numerous competing agendas and dealing with myriad parents’ special pleadings for their children while getting blamed whenever a single hair is harmed on a student’s head, their job combines maximum responsibility with minimal autonomy.  A school’s success has numerous fathers but its failures are primarily the principal’s to shoulder.  My asking whether the children could observe my daughter and I playing frisbee and whether I might teach them to throw a frisbee if I did not allow them to catch a frisbee was probably one of a hundred snap decisions she would have to make that day, each decision bound to disappoint someone.

Balancing my desire to have fun with my daughter with her need to avoid the fallout from an injured child, she issued her ruling: children could observe but not participate.  I didn’t have to like her ruling–and probably wasn’t expected to–but I had to respect it (in both the sense that I had to obey it and in the sense that I had to appreciate the difficulties in her making that decision and the wisdom in her decision).

So back to frisbee playing my daughter and I went.  Slowly children began coming over to observe us until over a dozen children had gathered to the side, cheering us on and booing or yelling teasing insults whenever I flubbed a throw or catch, while cheering every good effort their classmate (my daughter) made.  However, I could not help but notice the eager looks on their faces as the frisbee was tossed back and forth.  Slowly the discipline needed to merely observe–a discipline they seemed to exercise with all the exertion of will that dogs might have shown in heeling while two humans tossed a steak back and forth–broke down until eventually children were running all over the periphery of our game.  Fearing someone would get injured I quit just before recess ended.

And thus any attempt to teach my daughter’s classmates to throw a frisbee ended, ended by the good intentions of tort lawyers and neurotic parents to raise children in a risk-free, injury-free environment.  The same helicopter parent mindset that encourages us to have lunch with our children at school discourages us from engaging with these children in a fun, wholesome activity that risks injury: the line between active parenting and overactive parenting apparently too subtle for our culture to master.

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