A Parent’s Lament

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helicopter-3-1310424Has this ever occurred to you as we enter the season of celebration for all those graduating from high school: There are an awful lot of speeches made on behalf of these newly minted scholars, but precious few devoted to their parents.

It’s been a year now since Betsy and I officially became empty nesters. We’ve been told there are two typical responses from new empty nesters: Building a shrine in the suddenly vacant room of their now adult children; or, Reverting back to the hectic social life one had before those same children entered the picture. Or course, if you’re like us and had no social life to begin with, there’s a third way: Be too busy to notice anything.

But I’ll leave the various strategies for empty nesters for a later session. Here the lament of which I speak is akin to the “letting the birds fly” concept. Like peanut allergies, it appears this affliction occurs more frequently today than in past generations. But we need to go back a few generations to identify the source.

Coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, young parents who lived through these events vowed to create a better world for the children. OK, that might sound a bit over the top. You probably don’t remember your parents or grandparents telling you “my job is to make the world a better place for you.” Rather, you more likely heard “my only hope is that I give you a better life than I had.” In total, it’s not that they had a bad life, it’s just that the first few years were something you’d never wish upon your children. In either case, the cumulative effect of all these individual parents giving their own kids a better life has been to create a better world.

Of course, the complaint nowadays is that this “Greatest Generation,” while mastering the whole “making the world a better place for you” thing, it maybe didn’t do such a good job of passing on the moral and work ethic that led to that goal. Now, I’m not a psychologist nor have I (recently) stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, but I’m thinking what they did pass on is an obsessive sense to “protect the child.” It’s not as though the older generation carried this obsession. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. When it was time to fly out of the nest, you’d better have flown out of the nest otherwise daddy would charge you rent. Nope. The Greatest Generation certainly learned the lesson of the free-rider problem and there was no way they’d allow their kids to become free loaders.

Instead, what we’ve seen starting with their baby boomer offspring is the advent of the Helicopter Parent – constantly hovering over their little ones to protect them. (The term comes from the 1969 book Between Parent and Child where author Dr. Haim Ginott’s quotes a teen who says, “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter.”) Unfortunately, these parents never once stop to consider how the very wind shear generated by their ever-circling adult rotors keep their children from learning how to fly for themselves. As the Roundtable Commissioner for our local Boy Scout district, knowing how to best accommodate these parents has been a common challenge for Scout leaders. So acute is this problem that I once brought in a real psychologist to share with those leaders effective strategies for coping with this societal phenomenon.

At what point does one cross from being a good “concerned” parent to being a Helicopter Parent? An article by Susan Swann for FamilyShare.com (“Am I a helicopter parent? 5 signs you need to learn to let go a little”) suggests these five indicators that you might be (or have been) a helicopter parent:

  1. Doing things for children they can do for themselves
  2. Saying “No!” but not meaning it
  3. Not allowing children to make age-appropriate choices
  4. Negotiating your child’s conflicts with other children
  5. Shielding children from failure

It’s the first and last items on this list that youth organization adult leader training emphasizes. They are also the greatest sources of the Parent Lament.

As parents, we all know the day will come when children must take wing on their own. It’s not an easy milestone for many reasons. It is, however, a necessary landmark all parents must pass on this journey we call “Life.” Yet, the nagging concern for one’s children never really leaves. With each bump in their respective roads, parents lament the fact that time and distance prevent them from intervening. It’s as though a false guilt blankets us. Our experience has taught us how to maneuver around these bumps. Surely there must be some way we can articulate what we’ve learned to help our own children avoid these predictable pitfalls.

Alas, growing up means experiencing these tests for yourself. No lecture – no matter how sincerely delivered, how elegantly expressed, or how detailed in exactness – can ever replace personal experience. Only living life in the real world can cause that “click-whirr” inside someone’s brain that they forever remember. You know what I mean. That’s how you learned.

So, no matter what trials and tribulations your children face, your role as a parent from this point on is best revealed in this quote from Vince Lombardi: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

When you’re kid gets up without reaching for your hand, you know you’ve succeeded as a parent.

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