Which style is best for your children?
Every weekday at 3:20 p.m., Jenifer parks her minivan alongside the school fence. She walks through the gate to pick up her waiting daughters, ages 8 and 7. After a quick hug, she grabs their backpacks and drives the girls home. Then it is time for homework, tutoring, after school activities, dinner, bath and bed.
Less than a mile away, another neighborhood mom, also named Jennifer (with two Ns), and also mother to daughters ages 8 and 7, waits. But she waits at the front of her subdivision to meet her daughters as they walk home. Once at home, they do homework, ride bikes and go to the occasional Girl Scout meeting. But mostly, their time is purposely unstructured.
The two moms are close friends, and their children are BFFs, but they have different approaches to parenting. The very idea of her kids walking home alone or navigating a busy intersection without a crossing guard makes Jenifer, a self-described “helicopter parent,” uneasy. “I tell Jennifer all the time that she is crazy,” she says with a laugh.
And Jennifer, who leans more to the “free range” end of the parenting spectrum, which advocates giving children more freedom, can’t imagine following her friend’s more structured, watchful style of parenting. “I try to keep the girls safe, but keep the reins loose, so they can explore,” she says, adding that she believes her father’s similar approach—he encouraged her to get her pilot’s license at 16 and to be a foreign exchange student in high school—fostered her sense of self-confidence and independence.
So who is right? Which style of parenting is best?
“Both styles have benefits for child rearing,” says Michael Assel, PhD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. Assel and his colleagues at the Children’s Learning Institute have studied the effect of early maternal interaction on children’s later achievement. He calls the conflict between helicopter and free-range parenting a “false dichotomy.” Most parents don’t adhere strictly to one style or the other, and they shouldn’t. “In reality, parents need to be both a free-range parent and a helicopter parent, but at different times.”
Keep them close
In the past, parents who followed a more structured and rigid parenting approach were called “overprotective” or “strict.” With the rise of the millennial generation, they became “helicopter parents,” a term disparagingly used to describe parents with a tendency to hover over their children. Helicopter parents are called out for being too safety conscious and too involved in their children’s lives. Critics fault helicopter parents for raising a generation of young adults who aren’t able to do anything for themselves. A recent study published in the October issue of The Journal of Adolescence found that children of helicopter parents were less engaged in college and needed their parents help to make decisions.
“It is interesting that some parents still call to make sure their child has turned everything in for their medical school admissions application,” says LaTanya Jones Love, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UTHealth Medical School who is also an assistant dean for admissions and student affairs.
Love, a parent herself to two young children, understands how the pressure to succeed and desire to keep kids safe drives well-meaning parents to push their kids and constantly keep tabs on them. And now, social media, GPS, cellphones, webcams and a crop of new technologies allow parents to know what their kids are doing 24/7.
Deciding not to use that technology can be a challenge, says Assel, father of two daughters, ages 14 and 17. He says he could easily track his eldest daughter’s whereabouts using an application on his smart phone, but doesn’t because such surveillance can quickly become a slippery slope.
“You don’t want to be that parent constantly watching your college kid through her webcam,” he says.
While helicopter parenting gets a bad rap, some measure of hovering is good for kids, Assel says. For his patients—children with developmental and learning disabilities—it is essential. Parents of children with disabilities need to be advocates on behalf of their children for school accommodations, work with them on their school work, and be active participants in therapeutic services. Likewise, parents of kids without disabilities should involve themselves in their children’s lives when it counts—such as establishing good study habits, teaching them values and helping them when they are having trouble with schoolwork.
Set them free
Before it had a name, free-range parenting was the default style of parenting for generations (Remember when our parents told us not to come back home until it was time for dinner?). But the label really took off in 2008, when Lenore Skenazy published a column in the New York Sun detailing her decision to let her then 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone. Controversy followed, with the media dubbing Skenazy as the “Worst Mom in America.” She fought back by launching a blog and a book to explain her parenting philosophy and encourage parents who want to give their children more freedom.
“Our kids are safer than we think, and more competent, too,” Skenazy says on her blog. “They deserve a chance to stretch and grow and do what we did—stay out till the street lights come on.”
Crime has been going down since the ‘90s, Skenazy adds, and child abductions are rare. Of the nearly 800,000 children under 18 reported missing in a one-year period by the Department of Justice, 115 are the result of “stereotypical kidnapping”—when a stranger takes a child. About 90 percent of abductees return home within 24 hours and most are runaways.
The free-range movement also encourages parents to give children more freedom in other areas of their lives and the opportunity to fail. Giving kids more responsibility is good, agrees Assel. However, he cautions free-range parents against taking the ideology too far and totally discounting the value of parental involvement.
“It (free-range parenting) can be used as a crutch, if it makes it easier for parents to say that their child is responsible for her own grades, instead of taking the effort to help her when she is struggling.”
Parenting from the middle
While there’s little research on the long-term effects of either parenting method, “There is strong evidence that warm and nurturing parents have a positive effect on cognitive, social and language development,” Assel says.
What does that mean for parents? Try to find a balance between the two philosophies, say Assel and Love, and remember that each child is different. One child may need more freedom and another child may need more guidance. Achieving that balance takes time and patience from both helicopter and free-range parents. Parents who tend to do everything for their children may struggle with letting them accomplish tasks by themselves. Parents who are more free-range may have to occasionally push their children to do something important. It isn’t easy.
“One rule of parenting I always go by is to ask yourself, “What’s the hardest thing I can do right now?” Assel says. “If it seems hard, you are probably headed in the right direction.”