Helicopter Parents, Take It Easy

In August, we were winding down a day at the beach when our eight-year-old son started scaling the rocky face of a steep hill behind us. I was folding up the beach blanket when he yelled, “Mama, look at me!”

I turned and saw his wire of a body clinging to the brownish-orange rock, about fifteen feet up. I imagined, as I am wont to do, his fingers losing grip and his body plummeting to the ground. Without much thought, I yelled, “That doesn’t look safe!”

His face fell, and a friend of ours, an avid surfer and mountain biker who was standing beside me, said witheringly, “That’s the point, Mom.”

Oh, right.

For whatever reason, my instinct — and that of so many parents I know — is to shelter and protect, to take our kids’ experiences and bend them into safer, gentler, more palatable iterations. And yet, here was our son — the boy who wouldn’t go on a swing as a toddler for fear of his feet leaving the ground — climbing higher than he ever had. He was challenging himself in a way I once dreamed of. And I’d thrown a big wet towel over the moment. Worse, I had to wonder how often I’d made such off-the-cuff remarks. Would they affirm his growing sense that the world is a dangerous place, that new challenges are best approached with extreme caution, or worse, not at all?

As a matter of fact, yes. According to a new study by researchers at North Carolina State University, parents, particularly those who tend to hover, have a greater effect on their kids’ approach to outdoor play than they may realize. Researchers observed kids at 20 randomly selected parks in North Carolina for eight weeks. They categorized the kids’ activity levels into three types — sedentary, moderately active, and vigorously active — and found that if a child was in the park with an adult, his activity level was lower than kids who were alone or with a group of other kids. In particular, if a parent was present, the “vigorously active” level of activity was cut in half.

As Jennifer LaRue Huget, who blogs for the Washington Post put it:

“The headline-grabbing finding … was that the single-most potent factor associated with how much physical activity kids (especially little ones) got was the presence of a parent: Kids with a parent in the park engaged in far less physical activity than those whose parents weren’t there. (Non-parental caregivers had a similar, but lesser, influence.) The study says this is in keeping with other research showing that parents’ worries about their kids’ safety hampers outdoor play.”

And yet, I didn’t really need a study to tell me how my presence had changed the tenor of our son’s experience that day at the beach — it was written all over his face. When he heard my panic, his eyes dimmed, his smile faded, and his shoulders slumped. I stood there, beach blanket in hand, wishing my words away.

And then, to my great relief, something wonderful happened: He turned from me and kept on going.