Written by: Julia Pelly
Before my oldest son was born I, like most first-time-parents, spent a lot of time reading about all the things I should and shouldn’t do if I wanted him to grow into a happy, healthy, productive member of society. While there were all sorts of must and must not do’s for babyhood, I was drawn to learning about the parenting styles that would come into play as he reached toddlerhood, early childhood, and beyond.
While I liked the sound of both attachment parenting and free-range parenting, there was one parenting style that seemed to be universally despised; helicopter parenting. As I read stories of parents micromanaging their children’s lives and smoothing their path so much so that they reached adulthood without the ability to bounce back from the smallest setback, I vowed I wouldn’t do that to my baby.
When he was born there was no single parenting style that fit exactly how he needed me to parent him but his confidence and independence remained front of mind as I considered how to respond to different situations. In preschool, if he reported another kid being mean to him, I brainstormed strategies to respond with him rather than rushing to tell his teacher they needed to solve the problem. In kindergarten, when he had trouble with an afterschool monitor treating him unfairly, I worked with him to write her a note, rather than jumping in to solve the problem without him. I never left him floundering to manage unfamiliar situations on his own, but I also made sure I didn’t do too much. After all, I figured, navigating the natural challenges of childhood would help him become the sort of grown-up I wanted him to be.
And then March 2020 happened and those natural challenges I imagined him encountering turned into something totally different. My son went from learning to thrive in kindergarten to sitting at home, just like the rest of us, for months on end. While my son didn’t lose any loved ones to COVID, and we were privileged enough to keep his home life as steady as possible, he faced a lot of disappointment in the months and years that COVID closed down normal life. There were no birthday parties or sports teams. He missed the second half of kindergarten and was forced to complete first grade through a screen. He never had a field trip, field day, or school assembly and went nearly a year without seeing his cousins, aunts, or uncles.
So when second grade rolled around, the first year that would hopefully feel ‘normal,’ I felt just as excited as him that he would finally be back in the classroom. He almost shook with excitement as he named all the kindergarten classmates he couldn’t wait to see again and all the friends from the neighborhood he hoped to share a desk with. When we got his class list I was devastated for him; it didn’t include a single other kid he knew in real life or even from his virtual class. And that’s when I decided my days of being an anti-helicopter parent were over.
Under normal circumstances, I’d like to think I wouldn’t have requested a class switch but, after years of virtual schooling and an endless list of missed social opportunities and small joys, I decided my son deserved to have a happy, easy year. So I called his school and begged them to switch his class to one that had several of his old friends in it. They understood my desire (they’re parents too, after all) and made the switch without any trouble at all. The beaming smile my son gave me when I told him that several of his buddies were in his class was all I needed to know I’d done the right thing.
While I still believe that it’s important to give kids the opportunity to navigate hard things, I know there are also times it can be helpful and important to simply use your grown-up power to solve a problem for them.
My son spent second grade re-learning how to be an elementary student, playing with his friends during recess, working with people he cares about on projects, and troubleshooting the normal friendship challenges of early elementary school.
As we approach third-grade class assignment day, I know he’s hopeful that he’ll have a friend or two in his class. But, if he doesn’t, I know the experiences he had with his friends in second grade have helped him gain the social confidence he’ll need to manage on his own.
When I asked him how he might feel if he didn’t end up having any of his friends in his third-grade class he responded, “you know, I would be sad, but I would find out who I have things in common with and try to make new friends. It would be okay.” It turns out, sometimes, helicopter parenting pays off.
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