Helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting is the hot new debate. The Meitivs are all over the news because they let their two kids, ages 10 and 6, walk home from school and the park without adult supervision. Parents across the nation are arguing whether this practice is appropriate in today’s world.
The people debating the issue, by and large, are people like me who basically spent our entire childhoods without adult supervision. I walked to and from school from about 2nd grade on; we lived close to a mile from the school in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I went to and from friends’ houses, rode my bike all over the street, and spent vast amounts of time alone, or at least playing unsupervised.
The Meitivs are now the face of a movement called free-range parenting, where parents seek to teach their children autonomy and independence through allowing them to experience times without supervision. Parents who embody the opposite approach are given the derogatory term “helicopter parents,” named for the way they hover over their child’s every move.
I suppose I am a helicopter parent, at least with Gracie. The very thought of letting her go without supervision in uncontrollable environments terrifies me. I recently heard a “This American Life” episode called Batman, where a man who lost his eyes as a young child uses echolocation to navigate the world and is able to perform seemingly impossible tasks. In the episode, the man known as Batman advocates that blind children are only limited by our expectations of them and we should stop rescuing them or teaching them they are limited. There is a point where he visibly cringes as a godmother swoops in to rescue her young godson who is about to find a busy street.
This gave me pause. I do not want to presume that Grace is more disabled than she really is. I do not want to limit her by my low expectations. However, the thought of allowing her to approach a busy street is absolutely terrifying. I can understand why the godmother swooped. I would, too. I can understand those who question the propriety of allowing a 6-year-old to walk home with only a 10-year-old for supervision. (I do think the 10-year-old is probably fine without an adult, and perhaps is safer with another kid.) I can appreciate the worry, the fear, the what-if of it all.
But, is it my place to judge what these people do for their kids? It’s not like they live in inner-city Detroit. (And, there are probably kids much younger in inner-city Detroit with much less supervision.) Is it my place to condemn them for their personal decision involving their own kids? The Supreme Court says no, that parental rights are “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Troxel v. Granville held that no one should interfere in a fit parent’s child-rearing decisions.
I would like to think that none of my parenting decisions would be objectionable to an outside observer. I certainly always try to do what’s best for my children, although like everyone I make plenty of mistakes. As far as the free-range versus helicopter debate, I’d probably fall closer to the helicopter column—my children are too precious to me to risk anything. Maybe that attitude prevents them from developing autonomy, but I’m just doing the best I can.