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Confessions of a Helicopter Parent
Confessions of a Helicopter Parent
If you looked in the dictionary under “Helicopter Parent” you would have seen my picture. Yes, a tall good looking devil, and modest too.
Background: For 20 years I was the director of a $50+ million dollar government infrastructure agency, and my role was always to solve problems. Any problems. Large or small. Fix ‘em like you fix a cat. Apparently, I was real good at it. This was my calling and I’ve got the awards to prove it. (Yippee)
For 31 years I have been a father. I was blessed with two beautiful children (I think maybe my wife of 35 years may have had something to do with it...). Though I always believed that my children would be very similar, because, after all, they were cut from the same cloth, genetically speaking, they could have hardly been more different. Indeed, I was brought to understand that cloth is woven in two directions the weft (or woof) and the warp (no, not Star Trek).
For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that my son (the oldest, taller and better looking than his dad) is the warp (no, not warped), and my daughter (taller than her mother - which isn’t saying much - but just as gorgeous) is the weft. The boy (now man) was not just our first, but the only local grandchild (stand by for Confessions of Helicopter Grandparents later). As such, he received everything we all could give him. Absolutely inundated in all the love and caring (and stuff) that we all could bestow.
Being a bright lad (see “genetics” above) from the beginning, and having the same rational/cognitive bent that I had, he and I were joined at the hip. Discussing and reasoning any and everything that he felt needed to be discussed or reasoned. As a very small child, it was the usual; trucks, dinosaurs, and airplanes. These gave way to mathematics, biology, astronomy and chemistry. Discussing the concept of “infinity” with an eight year old (think of the biggest number you can, now add one more) was illuminating for both of us. School work, religion, and sports found their place soon thereafter. Early teens brought, you guessed it, sex, and even philosophy.
All of our discussions were open ended, with him deciding when he had heard enough, his questions were sufficiently answered, or he had fallen asleep. As you can imagine, some of these talks spanned hours and more than a few were, shall we say, awkward. Nonetheless, if he had questions, I did my best to answer them (even if I had to postpone an answer pending later research). This was, after all, my sacred duty.
As an aside, I have always believed that when you lie to someone, for whatever reason, you devalue them. You are saying that they are just not worth the effort to tell them the simple truth. This includes those little falsehoods that parents often use to dismiss inconvenient questions.
By adhering scrupulously to never telling my kids a lie, even when time was short or conditions for an explanation were not particularly ripe, gave me what I considered a high ground on which to rely. Anytime I would deny a request, I would explain the underlying reasoning, dangers, or other issues and advise that I have now given them my best thinking on the issue at hand. I could always honestly use the statement, “Have I ever lied to you?”. When faced with the inescapable fact, that I had, indeed, never lied to them, I believed that they now relied on my honesty as a persuasive and legitimate argument. It wasn’t until my grown son, in answer to this very question, advised that when I used the “Have I ever lied to you?” line simply meant to him (and his sister) that the discussion was now over. My jaw hit the table. It seems that my adult interpretation was quite different from that of a child. How could I have been so wrong and blind, and worst of all, arrogant?
Seeing my obvious distress, my merciful son further explained that though the discussion had ended, he and his sister still believed they had received my best and honest advice. Just abruptly.
Part of my parenting style was to give immediate answers (or permission) after hearing the issue or request. I believed that a delay just led to unnecessary frustration. So, a yes or a no, with accompanying instruction or reasoning, was usually forthcoming. In some instances, I believed it would be a good learning opportunity if a non-commital response were to allow time for them to reflect and rethink and perhaps arrive at the logical answer on their own. In those cases I would humorously use the judicial, “I will take the matter under advisement”. Being very pleased with myself for this crafty piece of thinking, I was brought to earth unceremoniously when my children were about thirteen and eight, respectively. It seemed that I had used that phrase on my daughter, perhaps for the first time. Instead of triggering the expected reflection and rethinking, she simply turned to her brother irritated and asked what does “I will take it under advisement” mean. He translated, matter-of-factly, “It means no.”
In the case of my daughter, the weft, also a bright lass (see “genetics” above again), though one who best learned and expressed herself intuitively, spontaneously, and interpersonally. She found more comfort in daddy’s hairy arms than in verbal discussion. I firmly believe that she and her mother could (and can) communicate telepathically not just concept and content, but emotion and sentiment, all in a blink. Pretty darned efficient and apparently quite satisfying.
For the girl (now woman), we found that a second child does not draw from or detract anything from the first. It seemed, contrary to the apparent laws of physics, that our capacities for love and caring simply doubled (or more). From her early perspective, and plain spoken statements, she felt that her brother was getting preferential treatment. She was not yet ready to understand that a sibling five years older will be involved in different things. Her acute awareness of these “things”, nonetheless, formed the basis for her feelings of inequity. It so happens that when older brother came of age to drive (16 in our state), 11 year old younger sister could now see, in stark relief, what five years really meant. Her clear voicing of this epiphany brought her both relief and joy. She had now concluded definitively that she was, indeed, getting her fair share even if it wasn’t exactly identical to what her older brother was getting.
Yes, at age 16, when she backed her new car into a fire hydrant, her license was taken for a month just as her brother’s license, five years earlier, had been for a speeding ticket. Fair’s fair.
Since I was unable to duplicate the intuitive link she shared with her mother, she compensated for my shortcomings. This was adaptive, as I was often the keeper of the “permission” she needed. Accordingly, she found that it was to her advantage to be able to speak “daddy”.
I watched with unbridled delight and amazement as she learned to reason, discuss, and grind the logic necessary to cut through my inadequacies. Though some of the early attempts often dissolved into tears, either from the frustration of trying to speak my language or simply not getting her way fast enough, her force of will (a sight to behold) would bring her back to complete the negotiation.
My relationship with my kids is born of everything above and plenty more. I state with no reservation (and no exaggeration) that I would absolutely, positively, without a second thought, take a bullet for either of them. That said, you now have the basis for my uncontrollable need to be a helicopter parent.
The Helicopter Parent in Action
For those who have not heard of the helicopter parent, the simple explanation is a parent who so closely tracks their children’s activities and lives that they appear (to all observers) to actually hover over the child. Yes, that’s me. 24/7. Now, factor in my personal background of fixing every problem that raises its head, and you have the picture.
Any problem or issue, real or perceived, warranted my immediate and undivided attention. If proper credit was not awarded on one of my kids tests, the school could expect to see me the next day, in person, for a full explanation. Looking back on it, I became a registered swimming referee for high school and summer leagues with my stated reason to help all of the children enjoy the competitive swimming seasons. I suspect, in fact, it was to put me in a position to directly monitor my own kids. Make no mistake, I disqualified my own for legitimate infractions as quickly as I would any other child. In my mind, when I did so, I knew it was absolutely fair and my kids were always held responsible for their actions. My intent was never to move my children above the rules, but to insure impartiality and uniform application of the rules.
My “interventions” knew no bounds. The whirling helicopter blades roared. I believed it was not only my right but my duty. Being a forceful and successful problem solver by training and nature and holding the well-being of my children in the ultimate highest light, led me to be a scourge among all of their activities. I, nobly in my own mind, was willing to be seen as a curse to those who would dare to treat my children unfairly. If I sensed inequity I would swoop in, breathing fire. (Wow, maybe I was actually a dragon parent.)
In retrospect, my over-protectiveness met my needs far more than those of my children. Fortunately, both my son and daughter survived and thrive as adults. My son is a lawyer for the State and my daughter holds an advanced degree and works for a large university.
In recent discussions with both of them, now as adults, it was revealing and enlightening to hear their perspectives on their upbringing. Neither saw any motive other than heartfelt concern enacted by a devoted parent. While both appreciated their problems being solved (many times without even asking) as children, they now see it as having interfered with them advancing their experience in handling their own problems. Thankfully, their personal and professional successes, and their own report, confirm that their growth was not denied, but perhaps only briefly delayed.
My parenting philosophy (in addition to over-protectiveness) centered on always treating them with honesty and dignity as their fundamental rights. As both kids come to the point in life of becoming parents themselves, my advice to them, at their request, was to remember in as much detail as possible their own childhood. All of the things their mother and I did that made them feel good, loved, worthwhile, valued, respected and treasured should , in turn, be used as part of their parenting. Certainly any actions that made them feel sad, bad, worthless, disrespected or unloved should be specifically avoided.
Being protective of our children is our responsibility, being over-protective is not. I pledge to try to do better with my grandchildren.