Helicopter parents are a readily identifiable species: Omnipresent, hovering, constantly scanning the area for dangers (both real and imagined) that might warrant swooping in to rescue their beloved child(ren). Many people know at least a few who fit that description, and some of us will recognize ourselves therein.
Although I do not know if there have been studies indicating that internal wiring predisposes some to hypervigilance, I certainly believe that anxious parents could be born or bred – or both! Nervous kids are more likely to become nervous adults, who are more likely to become nervous parents, and so on. Having said that, not every sensitive child is destined to be a high-strung adult, and plenty of neurotic grownups were not always that way. Some of our personalities are clearly determined by DNA, but our experiences factor in as well. So whether nature or nurture should be blamed for why the only dog I’ve ever adopted as a puppy turned out to be a head case is still open for debate…
I’d like to think that none of us want anything bad to happen to our babies, that we do the best we can to keep our kids safe, which is undoubtedly easier for some of us than others. A colleague of my father’s, and longtime family friend, is one of fourteen children. When asked how his parents kept an eye on their dozen-plus kids at once, he said “Listen, when you go to the beach with fourteen children, God has to watch at least some of them, because no parent can keep track of that many at once.” That situation pretty much mandates subcontracting childcare to someone, anyone! Spouse, babysitter, oldest child, deity – you name it, they likely tried it. And it worked for them.
The stereotypical new parent worries about every little detail, and becomes increasingly laissez-faire with each subsequent child. The first child eats only organic, free-range, single-sensed organisms presented on BPA-free melamine dinnerware at a round table that avoids harsh angles and corners as dictated by feng shui principles. The second kid eats what the first kid and parents are having, because time and money are stretched thinner with each child. Once four or more kids are on the scene, they’re pretty much eating anything they can serve themselves. Ideally: fresh fruit and veggies. More realistically: leftovers, whatever has the least freezer burn, stale goldfish crackers found in the carseat, maybe a little dirt if no one is looking, and definitely boogers.
Not all of us are going to be the parents described above, in part because we are not wired the same, and also because we’ve had different upbringings, life experiences, pregnancies. Different nature, different nurture. My friend Kathy heroically and at great risk to her own health, carried her son Drew to viability. Unbelievably tiny at birth, he survived and thrived and is a curious, energetic and happy four-year-old. Kathy is attentive and hands-on, and from our conversations I know that the miracle of her son’s existence is never far from her mind, but somehow she is still able to put her feet up and let her little guy play nearby – not a helicopter rotor in sight. Another friend, Liat, had an unremarkable pregnancy with her younger son, but delivery came with a terrifying and unforeseen complication which left little Idan fighting for his life for weeks in the NICU. Three years later, Idan is the picture of health, and a veritable beacon of light. Liat is careful not to put him at risk unnecessarily, yet maintains a level head and does not hesitate to encourage him to explore and adventure.
And then there’s me. While not a particularly intense kid, I grew into a pretty tightly wound adult. Yoga helps me to find balance, and my dogs and kids have definitely softened some of my rough edges, however I doubt I will ever be someone who is described as laid-back. The experiences I have had as a parent resulted in my being more rather than less anxious. At five years old, with two parents watching carefully at spitting distance, our older kiddo broke her arm badly, requiring a surgical repair. Ever the overachiever, she went on to grow a softball sized liver tumor right before our watchful eyes. My son arrived a month early after a complicated, high-risk pregnancy and touch-and-go delivery. T has sprouted up, tall, strong, inquisitive, and joyful. His sister is the picture of natural athleticism, already taller than her grandmothers and about to shoot up past her mother and stepmom, too. I am beyond grateful… but not quite able to unload my fleet of what-if helicopters.
I absolutely see why it is often thought that allowing kids to be exposed to different experiences (and not all of them positive, comfortable ones) promotes resilience, and I agree that in some cases, trying to insulate our children from everything just postpones the inevitable. This leads me to think of Madame Blanc, the downstairs neighbor of my college boyfriend in Paris. She was well into her 90s, an irreverent pistol. There were many times when I’d have to jump out of the way as she came tearing out of the building’s garage. She would roar by in her little Renault, barely able to see over the steering wheel, driving stick (in heels!!), a bottle of whiskey between her knees and a cigarette in her left had at all times. Sure, I think that I would benefit from learning to relax a little, and I bet my kids would love it if I were a little bit less of a worrywart. I do not, however, think that I need to take up drinking whiskey and try smoking or driving stick again. In heels. Shit, I can barely walk in heels.
Please note: Personal stories and images shared in this post are with the express permission of parents or parties involved.