My 5-year-old son and I stepped into the small mirrored room built by a famous Japanese pop artist. Suddenly, we immersed in a field of bulbous white “phalluses” painted with red polka dots that seemed to stretch infinitely in all directions. A door closed softly behind us and I panicked. “Put your hands in your pockets,” I whispered frantically while my son leaned precariously over a low plexiglass barrier to gaze at the polka-dotted blobs. “Stand still!”
Just seconds before being ushered into the room we had been told what we were about to see was the oldest and most fragile of all the artist’s works on display. We were not, under any circumstances, to touch anything. If you’ve ever spent time with a 5-year-old (or my 5-year-old in particular), you know that this is a laughable request. But the docents weren’t laughing or, for that matter, fucking around.
Luckily, our time in the room was limited to 20 seconds. Still, during those 20 seconds, I was about as controlling as a parent can get without physically restraining their child. I was hovering like a medivac, helicoptering my way through a DMV of perceived dangers, both physical, and financial.
We did manage to exit into the gallery without destroying a priceless work of modern art, however, and I even got a picture for Instagram. But as my heart rate slowed, I was hit with a realization: I’ve always been a helicopter parent. It’s just that I hover at different heights depending on the situation.
I make that admission as someone who has, both professionally and personally, sneered about so-called helicopter parents: those individuals who seek to control every aspect of their child’s experience. I was not, I assured myself, one of those types of parents not content to let kids find their own path in the world. No, I was a hip parent with a little free-range vibe. I was laid back and easy going. I allowed my boys to just be who they wanted to be, man.
This was a lie, but it was a plausible enough lie that I could dupe myself into buying my own patter.
Why didn’t I want to admit the truth? Because I’m literally paid to be an expert on parents and speak to researchers about it. I understand that helicopter parenting is detrimental to kids’ development. Kids need time to play and explore on their own. (Parents need time to have relationships.) Children need room to fail and succeed and additional space in which they can learn from their mistakes. All this trial and error reinforces important neural pathways in the brain. I know this. I believe this. I’m … not great about acting accordingly.
So deep was my conviction and hubris, that I decided that I would spend a week trying to be a more helicopter-y parent in order to understand the difference between the status quo and full-on that guy. But the experiment was problematic out of the gate. I felt like a professional clown dressed up as a clown for Halloween.
I was earnestly trying to be more controlling, but I was also earnestly failing. I honestly couldn’t find moments in which my kid wasn’t already safely occupied or in my control. I couldn’t find time when my kid was going off script. As it turns out his life sounds like this: “This is what you’re eating, this is what you’re watching, this is when you’re reading, this is when you’re playing, this is when you’re going to bed.” By the end of the day, I had to reassess the experiment. Was I doing something wrong? Surely there had to be a slate of helicopter parenting traits that did not already resemble my parenting style. I did some research.
What I found were descriptions of overbearing parents that I simply couldn’t reconcile with my own behavior. Then came the trip to the museum.
Sure, part of the museum experience is necessarily regimented for children. And that’s how I shrugged off my control as we wandered through the art exhibit. But some new awareness shook loose in the mirrored room. As I walked the rest of the gallery with my family I experienced a kind of out-of-body observation of my actions. Here were my kids, being kids, and there I was, my hands on their arms and shoulders keeping them in intense check. There I was, close-talking intense whispers for them to calm down and be quiet, to observe this work or that painting from a specific perspective.
There are moments in your life when you might realize you’ve lacked a shocking amount of self-awareness. Those moments are jarring, to say the least, and I found myself unspooling years of parenting moments in my mind looking for confirmation that this was not who I was. None could be found.
So why did I think I was so hands-off? I think I know.
In my day to day, I work from home. During the summer my kids are always around. But a necessary distance separates us. My mind cannot be on them. It must be on my work. As such, they are beyond my control. I think I’ve conflated this quality with being a hands-off parent.
But even outside of work, the times when I’m not controlling my children are the times when I have checked out of parenting for myself. It’s not that I’m allowing them to have room to play, it’s that I have removed myself from their experience and left parenting to my wife for a while. When I’m back in the game, I immediately take back control.
Even when I’m the only parent on duty, and my boys and I are enjoying time outside, it’s not that I’m letting them play in a free-range fashion. My attention and control is still there. I’m still hovering. But I’m more like a news helicopter watching a police chase. I’m at a remove, but unwavering in my observation.
By the middle of the week, I understood what a fool’s errand my experiment had been. I realized how much I needed to change.
But here’s where it gets difficult. What’s become clear to me is that parents need to triage situations for control. I don’t think my control in the priceless art exhibit was unjustified. In the rest of the gallery, however, it was. My days are full of these moments when I have the choice to say something or let my children be who they are. In the vast majority of circumstances, I should probably let them be who they are. But I also know that this doesn’t mean checking out. It doesn’t mean being absent in my concern.
There a simple cure for helicopter parting that seems obvious to me now: giving choices. At no point during my self-observation did I hear myself ask, “would you rather?” At no point did I give my kids options. But offering options are exactly the way parents remain engaged and allow their kid a big degree of self-determination. What’s crazy is that I knew this. I just hadn’t internalized it.
I have now.
So as disturbing as the experiment in helicopter parenting was, it was deeply worthwhile. And I’ve come to understand that as parents we need to have moments of self-reflection and observation. For me, that meant getting out of my helicopter and seeing my children on their level.