My six-year-old daughter is smiling up at me as she walks backward down the stairs. I feel my stomach clench as the thought flashes through my mind: She's going to miss a step, tumble down the stairs, crack her head on the hardwood. I want to yell, "Be careful," but I'm sure if I do that it will be what causes her to fall. So I hurry a few steps and walk down beside her.
Where does this worry come from? I don't want it, but can't escape it. It's there almost every day: whether my kids are riding bicycles, running around on play structures, or going too high on the swings. I realize my fear of them getting hurt is disproportionate, but I can't ignore it – what if something were to happen? Something is bound to happen. And if it did, I couldn't live with myself.
Instinctively and without fail, I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Take for instance the time a few weeks ago when my wife and I took our kids, who are six and three, tobogganing. There was a small hill, and a very, very big hill that kids were racing down as though they were testing the sound barrier. Most didn't make it to the bottom without tumbling off their sleds. After a few runs down the small hill, my wife asked our daughter if she wanted to try the big hill. I looked at my wife with judgey eyes, as if she had broken an unspoken but clear agreement: We stay on the small hill. I trailed behind them up the hill. What was I going to do? Run alongside the toboggan to somehow prevent a surefire concussion? Every part of me was seizing up with panic; my body went slack with relief when my daughter changed her mind and decided to stick to the small hill.
This fretting is rooted in a fear of unforeseen outcomes, a desire for control. It's also a textbook definition of helicopter parenting. As a culture, we are obsessed with protecting kids – from building playgrounds with cushioned surfaces to preventing them from climbing trees. Yet, nobody wants to admit to being one. (Even I shake my head derisively when I hear about places such as Hamilton banning tobogganing for safety reasons.) But I am one and I want to change.
I don't want to raise worriers who will tremble like lab mice at the first sign of any hardship. Worrying runs in my family: For more than a decade, every time I left the house I was warned, day or night, about how many drunks were on the road. But even so, my older brother and I roamed free, walking to school in Grade 1 without any adult accompaniment. On weekends we spent whole mornings and afternoons down in a ravine.
It was the norm then. Today, it borders on being criminal. In the latest example of our tendency to mock helicopter parents yet castigate those who give their kids too much freedom, a couple who live in Maryland found themselves under investigation for negligence for allowing their children, ages 10 and six, to walk home alone about a mile from a park.
Even though that's how I grew up, every part of me seizes with terror at the very idea of my kids doing that. The terrible things that could happen. I can't even speak them for fear of making them real. They're like Voldemort. I'm not joking.
I want my kids to be self-reliant, resilient, confident, caring and respectful people. But following them around with my face locked in a horrified rictus and my arms outstretched in case they fall isn't quite furthering that goal.
We helicopter parents might have the best intentions, but the results have shown that the efforts have completely backfired. "If you look at this generation of children who've been raised this way, their anxiety is off the scales," says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto-based parenting coach and author of Connected Parenting. "They are a mess."
Multiple studies conducted over the past five years have shown that college students raised by helicopter parents exhibit a long list of worrisome traits: They are more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious compared with peers whose parents took a more hands-off approach. They also have decreased feelings of autonomy and competence, as well as being less open to new ideas.
It's simple to focus on my kids as they are now. But I have to square that with who they will be when they grow up. "We're always in this place of reconciling living with a toddler and raising a future adult," says Vicki Hoefle, author of The Straight Talk on Parenting: A No-Nonsense Approach on How to Grow a Grown-Up. "The first thing is to really get to know yourself and get to know the child you are living with, and then honour where your boundaries are so that you don't take on too much, too fast," Hoefle says.
In other words, I need to give my kids space to do the things I know they are capable of doing by themselves, and force myself to be rational in the face of irrational worries. It's hardly as easy as it sounds.
At the park now, I can hear my rational self calling to me like a police officer holding a bullhorn: "Step away from the climber. Everything is going to be okay. Step away from the climber." So I take a deep breath and sit on the bench.
In one giant (for me) baby step, I recently let my kids roam about a toy store. Usually, they love to run through the aisles hiding from me. I'll chase them down, barking at them to stay in my sight. That usual initial wave of fear vanished after a moment or two of telling myself they're fine, although every time the front door opened I looked to make sure they weren't leaving through it.
How can a couple be fine letting their kids walk a mile home alone and I can't be comfortable with my kids six feet away looking at treats in the snack aisle? In the toy store it was quiet enough that I could hear my kids' boots scraping along the ground, occasionally yelling about one must-have item or another. When I couldn't hear them, I kept reminding myself that of course they were fine, repeating the mantra "be rational" in my mind.
Then, this past weekend, my son had his first swimming lesson. I held his hand and coaxed him into the pool, where his teacher and three other kids were waiting. A lifeguard told me parents weren't allowed on deck, but let me stay a few extra minutes.
After I finally left, I stood on the other side of a glass wall looking in, giving my son two thumbs up and an extra big smile every time he looked over.
Near the end of the class, the teacher guided all the kids to the far end of the pool, where a little yellow slide about three feet high stood perched on the water's edge. I moved instinctively a few steps closer to the door. Those slides are slippery, and I had a vision of my son tumbling backward onto the hard, cold tile.
He was standing on top of the slide in his green shorts. He looked so fragile. I had my hand on the door's metal bar, ready to race in.
He sat down and slid into the pool all on his own.
When he plopped up from the water he had a huge smile on his face.
Of course he did. Everything was fine.