Helicopter or Free Range: A Dilemma of Modern Parenting

February 25, 2015

When I first heard stories about a couple of parents in Maryland who were being investigated by Child Services for letting their children wander the streets alone, the visions in my head were of some poor, scared kids navigating the projects of East Baltimore like a scene from the HBO show The Wire, but then I actually read some of the coverage of the story. There I learned that the Meitiv family live in Silver Spring, a wealthy suburb of Washington D.C., and that the incident in question occurred when the children were picked up by a police officer mid-way through their walk home past the Discovery Channel building.

That changed things for me.

I lived in D.C. for four and a half years. I’ve walked up Georgia Avenue past the Discovery Channel building numerous times. (There’s a pretty decent and always entertaining pirate-themed bar just up the street. Try the grog sometime if you’re in the area.) It’s not a particularly dangerous or run-down area. In fact, it’s pretty well maintained, if a bit busy in terms of road traffic along Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue. If anything, the fact that someone noticed and cared enough to flag down a police officer to pick up the unattended ten and six year old siblings only reinforces the conclusion that this was a pretty decent, safe area.

Intrigued, I began to read more, and so I was introduced to the world of free range parenting, a movement which Lenore Skenazy inadvertently kickstarted in 2008 after her April 1 article in the New York Sun entitled Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone went viral. The Meitiv children are “free range kids,” and there have been a whole spate of stories in the last few years involving parents who have faced criminal charges or investigations by Child Services for allowing their children to be out in public unattended.

Blessedly, at least to my legal sensibilities, these cases have overwhelmingly ended in dropped charges or determinations that no abuse was on-going (although, as far as I can find, the investigation of the Meitiv’s is still on-going), and Ms. Skenazy also points out that these arrests and investigations are not that common.

Nonetheless, these incidents have sparked a national debate over parenting, and it has provided more than one occasion for my wife and me to play armchair quarterback and to think about what exactly the boundaries will be for our nearly two year old daughter when she gets older. As we’ve talked this over, though, I find myself dissatisfied with what is framed in popular culture and the media as an “either/or” choice. Is the parental choice to be constantly hovering or to let children roam wild? There are a few reasons why I’m not entirely comfortable with either philosophy.

Kids are Different: Places are Different

The first reason I have a hard time picking a camp to champion is because kids are different. I know. This is a really profound statement. But I don’t think that this should be under-emphasized. In the legal world, children in this 7-17 window are subjectively evaluated when we talk about things like liability and delinquency because society realizes that children develop at virtually unique paces, traveling through similar stages, but at differing rates and to differing degrees. It’s the big problem I have with condemning free range parents for letting their kids outside unattended. I’ve known some incredibly responsible 6 and 10 year olds. I’ve also known plenty that have to be supervised lest they lick electrical sockets or eat paste. The trouble with many parenting philosophies is that they struggle with taking a one size fits all approach to kids that just don’t fit that model.

Not only are kids different, but comparing unaccompanied children in one area to those in another is not always an apples to apples comparison. Many of the stories that are making the news involve parents in urban areas. For those of us that don’t live in those places, the thought of leaving children to ride the subway or wander the streets alone seems horrifying. As I confessed above, my initial reaction ran in this direction, but then I thought about my experience living in downtown D.C., and things really don’t seem as horrifying as I first thought. Beyond this, though, many of us live in suburbs or out in rural areas, and here it really doesn’t seem as scary. To be honest, when I pull onto the street to pick up my daughter from daycare during the summer here in Sioux Center, I’m more frightened for the adults trying to wade through the Lord of the Flies-style gangs of rowdy children roving the streets than I am for the kids.

Structured is Good: Free is Good

The second reason I have a hard time picking a camp to champion is because there are attractive attributes to both movements. The philosophy often derided as “helicopter parenting” was famously categorized by Dr. Annette Lareau in her book Unequal Childhoods as “concerted cultivation.” In her study, Dr. Lareau observed that middle and upper class parents were often more structured and interventionist in their children’s lives than the “natural growth” method used by the lower classes. Her conclusion was that this active intervention had a long-term beneficial impact on the development and eventual socioeconomic status of the children of white collar parents.

There are things that I significantly question about Dr. Lareau’s analysis and conclusions, but I have seen many examples of the type of parenting that she’s describing. Although usually derided as parents hovering over their children’s every move, protecting them from every bruise and bully, some parents, such as Elisabeth Stokes, a college professor in Maine, reject the idea that there’s “any benefit in cultural trauma being a part of our children’s growing up.” I see some appeal in this, and there’s further appeal in other emphases in this movement, such as providing structured activities and actively encouraging the development of reasoning and linguistic skills. Kids need to learn to navigate structures, they need to be pushed at times, and it’s important that they feel loved and protected by their parents.

Of course, there is great appeal in the “free range” approach too (although not in the name, which for me evokes images of children being “gluten-free” or “organic” or “delicious”… I really don’t want my kids described as food). I see too many young men and women in college who need everything spoon fed to them, who quail from anything challenging, and who haven’t learned how to deal responsibly with the first real breath of freedom they have been given. The notion that we have to let children develop their independence and creativity when they are young (and still under parental care) is very appealing to me.

I can see good things in both philosophies, and I recognize that kids, parents, and situations are all different. So must I choose to be either a helicopter or a free-ranger?

Statues and Saplings

Perhaps part of the solution here can be found in the idea of an operative metaphor, an idea I developed when talking about discipleship in our upper-level worldview class. An operative metaphor is an image or analogy we use to guide our understanding of a concept and our imagination in working out how that concept should be applied. It can be an anchor for what Walter Brueggemann calls “faithful improvisation.”

So how do we imagine our task as parents? I think many of us see ourselves in the role of molding and shaping our children, as if we are artisans chiseling out and perfecting a statue. After all, parenting is an art, right? Just a little dab of pressure here and the right structure there, and our own little David will rival anything Michelangelo could sculpt (at least he will have the decency not to flash his ding-a-ling in public). But are our children statues?

I think a better metaphor is to compare parenting to cultivating a tree. A young sapling will need care and protection from the harshest of the elements, but its primary needs are nourishment and sunshine. A sapling that survives will become a tree whether we like it or not, so we have to think about how to foster that growth, and that will involve some pruning and care, but it will also involve just letting the tree flourish on its own. There are lots of ways to take this, and plenty of areas where the analogy breaks down (let’s not get into pollination); however, I think this has two primary advantages over the sculpting perspective: First, children are not statues, they are alive. Second, Christ at multiple junctures uses very similar metaphors. Scripture compares us to fig trees, vines, and many other growing things, carefully tended, but raised to bear fruit, and we must recognize that our children are like us in that respect.

So what philosophy should we be using as parents? Should we seek to be helicopters? Should we give our children free range? I don’t think that the choice is a dichotomy. I also don’t think that it’s just picking a mushy middle ground (free helicopters!). We can root our task in what we diligently pray our children are and will be: children of God, and we can guide our imagination and understanding of how parenting works out by being similarly rooted in the operative metaphors of Scripture.

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

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  1. I wonder how any adult could think “cultural trauma” of some type is avoidable by children or that anything good will be served by intensifying the gap between more and less privileged classes on this basis.

    What exactly is being regarded as “cultural trauma” anyway? Learning the dark side of American history? Seeing how “the other half” lives today? Fasting or eating only rice and beans to cultivate empathy and spiritual solidarity with the poor? Being subjected to certain religious teachings, circumcision, essentialist gender roles? These are all things that various people find traumatic and inappropriate for their children while others embrace them as positive and essential.

    1. Hi Jenette, thanks for your comment.

      I had some similar questions about the “cultural trauma” issue as well. I think Stokes is referring more to dealing with bullies and times when the world seems out to get us. She’s not trying to minimize the bad things that so many suffer, I think she’s trying to ask why we would want to give our kids “bad” when we want “good” for them. There are many ways to critique that sentiment, but I resonate to some degree with the impulse: we parents want to (and should) protect our children, and there is some space for limiting the harshness of the world around us for our children if that’s something we can provide. I still tend to think that children will be exposed to these things eventually anyway, and I want the opportunity to be there formatively for my children to help them develop the coping skills, wisdom, and empathy that comes from dealing with deprivation, suffering, or unfairness, rather than preventing them from experiencing it altogether.

  2. Don, I especially like the “sapling” thought. That likens a child to the image I always see in the Psalm 1 verse “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.” When you care about the young tree you have planted, you stake three supports posts at equal distance around the sapling with twine or rubber ropes to secure it to its support structures which are home, church, and school. The supports keep it going straight and prevent breakage or downfall. The fact of being planted by a stream, certainly tells me that God plans for us to drink freely from His Word and grow well because of it. Two supports aren’t as effective as three in the task of training a young child. And the planter knows best each tree’s readiness to have the supports loosen their hold when the sapling’s trunk has grown strong enough to provide necessary strength to face the winds of life.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Elaine.

    Always happy to facilitate another avenue for getting us to the three-legged stool of church, home, and school. Just don’t take the tent posts in your metaphor as any implicit opinion for or against putting a toddler on a leash. 🙂

  4. As an educator, I am always very intrigued by the various homes and parenting styles my students come from. One of my mottos in all of life has been “All things in moderation”. I like to think a combination of the helicopter or hovering parent and the free range parenting style is good for kids. Parents need to be hovering a bit when checking to see if they have homework completed, know their memory verse or math facts, or if they are treating their classmates in a God-honoring way. However, to be sitting right next to them and making sure they get their assignments completed, helping them with all of their homework, and doing their projects for them, is not developing them into independent learners. From the moment a child is born, we are training them to be independent. Whether it is in their education, social life, or spiritual well being, I believe we need to teach them, monitor them and help them learn to live independently. And pray like crazy the entire time!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ardene.

      I love your last statement. I’m certainly no expert on parenting, but it’s plain to me with a daughter pushing two that I will never be able to forcibly mold her into exactly what I want her to be. I rejoice in her independent and inquisitive spirit, but there are times I see the parents who are more disciplined and structured, and I wonder “man, their two year old is doing introductory calculus and playing three instruments already… I wonder if mine should have learned not to eat crayons yet?” I find that parenthood often (not always) has me second-guessing myself, and it’s wonderful that I have my wife as a partner to help balance out what would otherwise be me relying on my own (highly inadequate) wisdom. However, the biggest thing I’ve learned so far is an entirely new urgency for and reliance on prayer.