When the deafening din of the "Whomp-whomp-whomp" rises over the horizon, rotor-blades whirring at top speed, I cover my ears and shudder. I'm on the helipad from Hades: the front lines of helicopter parenting.
As both a college professor and a camp director, I encounter it every day of my professional life; as a parent of several so-called millennials, I'm in the trenches. To hover, or not to hover? That is the question.
At the college where I work, parents call to dispute grades or to complain about a schedule. One mom brought her son into my office to demand that he be transferred out of a class that required student participation. He apparently had a "thing" about discussions -- obviously, as he never uttered a word. My daughter was a resident assistant in her college dorm. A freshman's mother called to ensure that she prevent the girl from going out at night.
I get the fact that parents are paying hefty tuition bill and therefore feel the right to dictate what they want for their kids. But what kind of adults are we creating if we come in and do battle for every problem our 20-year-olds have?
At the camp where I spend my summers, I can understand the nervous parents of our charges. But the counselors' parents can be astounding. I've gotten calls requesting that I switch their cabins or change their days off, or to complain about the bunk supervisors. One mother wrote an impassioned email berating me for not allowing her son to teach soccer. The young man was 19, and I was paying him! How are these kids ever going to learn to fend for themselves in the world of work?
As a member of this generation of parents, I've wrestled with this myself. When the kids were little the questions were simpler: Do you call a teacher about a grade, do you ask to have your child switched to a different class, should you call the mother of a bully?
When they got older, it was more complex. Should I turn in the owner of the dubious looking wild animal rescue center where my 19-year-old son worked, for harboring Siberian Tigers that he was required to feed? Should I demand a new semester-abroad host family after finding out that my daughter's hosts had a previously undisclosed 35-year-old male boarder whose bedroom opened on to my daughter's bathroom?
We all want to do what's right and best for our kids. The problem is, it's so hard to know what to do. Offspring are highly complex gadgets that come with no operating instructions.
As a parent, I've learned that you can't protect your kids from everything -- and even if you could, that's not always the best strategy. Children can't develop a healthy immune system if they're never exposed to germs. They will never learn how to cross a street if they're never allowed to cross the street. If you keep them in a cocoon throughout high school to protect them from drugs and alcohol, they may very well go crazy the first night they go away to college.
Parenting would be so much easier if our kids could learn from our missteps instead of simply repeating them. But I know that I learned more from making my own mistakes than from listening to the advice of my elders. So I know I have to let my children make mistakes.
But how much damage do you let them do?
When the kids were little and running around with their friends, I was so afraid that they would fall. I comforted myself with the fact that I had a big soft lawn that would cushion them.
And so I've come to realize that parenting is like a lawn -- and I'm more of a lawn-mower parent than a helicopter one. I can help them seed and grow their lawn by letting them develop and hone their decision-making skills, and helping them build a network of people for help and advice. Then, when they make mistakes, the grass will be soft, and there will be many hands to catch them if they fall.