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The Case for ‘Precision Parenting’

Kids develop better when parents step way back without turning away.

The bell curve of parenting styles rings between two extremes, the helicopter hover and the free-range goodbye. In the middle, there are myriad different approaches tailored to the impulses of different children and the neuroses of different parents. There are lighthouses, wolves and even dolphins. There is no one way to monitor a child. Still, there is a best way–my way.

I call my style “precision parenting” because you’ve got to have a term. I originally wanted to call it “sniper parenting,” but people were triggered by the neologism. My core idea: There is nothing wrong with intently watching a kid and nothing wrong with giving a kid space. You can do both if you’re willing to take a literal and figurative step back.

I try to hang in the pocket between the free-range parents, wherever they are, and the helicopter parents, who are leaning on the playground setup. I look for risks and, unless they are dire, I allow my children to take them. The important part for my kids is that I’m far enough away that they’re not tempted to turn to me to resolve every issue. The important part for me is that I handle parental anxiety by watching my kids, not interfering, and getting a better sense for what ill-advised stunts they’re mostly likely to pull.

To understand why precision parenting is the right approach right now, it’s helpful to understand how the free-range and helicopter schism happened in the first place. The social conditions that led to the emergence of those two styles of parenting are both present in evolved forms on 2017’s playgrounds and fields.

Latch-key kids arrived in the final years before parenting styles had cool names. I was one of them. I walked home from school alone, across the I-70 overpass, to an empty ranch house in a subdivision on the frontage road. I would rummage through my step dad’s playboys and subsist on cold cereal, waiting for engine noise in the driveway so I could try not to look guilty during the 6 o’clock evening news. I learned a lot during those unwatched hours.

“The goal of parenting is to produce an independent human being,” explains Hara Marano, editor at large of Psychology Today and author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. By that definition, my parents were at their most successful when they were at their least visible. She notes that kids once discovered that independence by jumping back-lot ditches on banana-seat bicycles, fight over trading cards, or cooperating their way through neighborhood-spanning adventures. I can vouch for that, but I can also remember discovering hardcore pornography way too early thanks to my step father’s collection of illicit videos.

Marano notes that the helicopter parents arrived at around the same time as the indoor kid, when the home computer started haunting the American den.

“It became very clear that the economy was changing and that competition was going global,” she says, “Once parents realized their kids weren’t automatically going to inherit their position in the society, they began pushing kids harder and harder because they didn’t want them left behind.”

Suddenly, parents became aware that their kids weren’t just competing with the Joneses. They were also competing with the Müllers and the Kobayashis, too. To keep up, they guided and coddled. Not just through academics but socially too. The result wasn’t a new American dominance; it was a surge of anxiety and social ineptitude among college students, which Marano and her colleagues first began observing at the turn of the millennium. Parents, it seems, had over-corrected. In an attempt to help their kids, they’d inadvertently created a generation dependent on guidance.

Free-range parenting, on the other hand, might be an over-correction to the over-correction. Remember Lenore Skenazy, a free-ranger who received the title “worst mom in the world” after allowing her 7-year-old to ride an NYC subway alone? She’s still around and if she had her way, playgrounds wouldn’t just be free of helicopter parents, they’d be free of parents, period.

“Play is a drive. It’s evolutionary. It’s something we need to keep our species alive,” Skenazy explains. “When kids play, they’re learning focus and perseverance. If they’re playing with a group of kids they’re learning all the social skills.”

She thinks this process is fundamentally limited by the presence of a parent.

Skenazy concedes that some parents may feel uncomfortable taking a non-interventionist approach in the back yard. But she stresses that eventually, parents need to just let their kid surprise them by leaving the house on their own and making it back alive. It is, perhaps, understandable that many parents might feel uneasy waiting, in suspense, for the surprise of their child arriving safely at home.

“Being at the perimeter is important,” says Marano, who didn’t think of the name “Precision Parenting,’ but might have some similar notions. “So is letting kids work out how to play together.”

It’s not a perfect system though–just a great one. What if there is a helicopter on the playground interfering with your ability to precision parent? What if the kid loses track of the parent and feels abandoned? What if Joey tries to start a fight? Marano has a solution: “You ask them, ‘What went well? What didn’t go well?” she says. She likes the debrief.

Happily, the parents in my community are largely precision parents in their own right. That makes everything much easier. While our kids hustle and chase on the neighborhood playground, we are far away, chattin. We will occasionally steal a glance at the swings and slides, but we’ve learned to trust our kids (for the most part) and our kids have learned not to seek us out for help (sometimes).

My approach is harder to make work in a different environment, specifically an urban environment.  At a city park, parents are less likely to be of one mind and more likely to interfere with a child. I know that, but even in those situations, I hang back with a book or my wife. Surely the helicopter parents beneath the swings ask each other: Whose kids are these?

They’re mine. They’re doing fine. Leave them alone. I’ve got an eye on it.