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Retro Parenting: The Solution to Helicopter Parenting

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Posted on April 21 2010 6:00 am
Suzanne Venker, a.k.a. "No Bull Mom," is an author, blogger, and speaker. You can find her at www.suzannevenker.com.

When I became a parent in 2000, there were two things I didn’t like about being a mom at the dawn of the 21st century. One, neighborhoods were desolate because so many children attend day care; and, two, the rise in what we now call “helicopter parenting.” Enter Laura Bennett, mother of six and author of the new book, Didn’t I Feed You Yesterday? The purpose of Bennett’s book is to challenge the phenomenon known as overparenting, which has swept across the nation for the better part of a decade.

What does it mean to be a “helicopter parent”? Essentially, it refers to a parent who throws him or herself into the parenting task to such a degree that children can barely breathe without their parents’ permission. It means you don’t let your children out of your sight for a minute out of fear they’ll be attacked by the bogeyman. It means you never miss a child’s sporting event because you’re convinced it’ll damage their self-esteem. It means you don’t leave town alone with your husband or get babysitters very often because you can’t stand leave your children with other people — so instead you bring them with you everywhere you go. It means, in a nutshell, that you can’t cut the apron strings and focus on your own needs.

The jury’s still out on how this all happened; I have my theories. But regardless of how we got here, here is where we are — and I suspect Ms. Bennett’s book is only the beginning of the backlash. As the author of a book on motherhood myself, what concerns me the most is that it seems parents are genuinely confused about when to be involved and when to back off. We’re think nothing of leaving our children in day care or with a nanny, but God forbid we let them walk down the street by themselves. Indeed, if you listen to Ms. Bennett talk, she’s merely arguing for a return to the way many of us were raised — which I like to call “hands-on/hands off.”

It was hands-on in that Mom was home when the children were home, but it was hands-off in that moms didn’t micromanage their children’s every move. I have coasters with quotes from mothers of previous generations that say things like this:

“Mother of five. Grandmother of eight. Drunk by seven.” Or, “That’s a lovely drawing, honey. Now go outside and play.”

Today, this type of parenting approach is verboten.

Ah, yes. The mothers of yesteryear had it so easy: They weren’t bombarded with advice from experts, nor did they worry that every little thing they said or did would land their children in a therapist’s office. Mothers may have been home; but contrary to what feminists want you to think about the typical 1950s housewife — that she was bored, lonely, purposeless — she wasn’t expected to be available to her kids every moment. It was understood that Mommy and Daddy had their own lives, their own relationship. It was understood that Mommy didn’t find everything Joey said to be all that fabulous. The entire atmosphere was different. Parents were parents, and children were children; the two groups weren’t expected to like the same things. If Mom didn’t attend every one of her children’s sporting events (like I don’t), it didn’t make her a bad mom.

Conversely, helicopter parenting tells Johnny he’s the center of the universe. It tells children that parents aren’t separate beings from their kids, that they live solely for them. Even worse, it blurs the boundary line between children and adults, causing tremendous discipline problems.

I haven’t read Ms. Bennett’s book, but I suspect she and I would agree on a lot. She says she has “chosen a more retro approach to parenting.”  I can relate to that. She says there is no such thing as a perfect mother. I agree. She says she doesn’t need an owner’s manual to ensure her children turn out okay. I most definitely agree with that.

Still, there are things about Ms. Bennett’s approach (based on what I’ve heard and read thus far) that are a bit too harsh for my liking. For example, she admits to having favorite children and says all parents do whether they admit it or not. (I disagree — and even if I didn’t, I happen to think this is one thought better left unsaid.) She says she hates to cook and doesn’t sweat it (which, let’s face it, means her children aren’t learning how to eat properly which will be a big problem for them down the road.) And she admits her children may not be as clean as others (since they’re often in the nanny’s hands and not mommy’s). So…in Bennett’s case, it’s possible she uses the helicopter phenomenon as an excuse to be really, really hands-off — but obviously I don’t know the details of her life. Either way, I still agree with the premise of her book.

So here’s to old-fashioned parenting! I’m just sorry I don’t have the physical stamina for six kids to prove my status as a retro parent.

Suzanne Venker is an author, blogger, and former teacher. Her new book, What Conservative Women Know, will be published March 2011. You can read more at Suzanne Venker Dot Com.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010

    Actually, mothers of yesteryear did have on "expert" whose advice they followed religiously: Dr. Spock, whose book sold in the multi-millions in multiple editions.

  2. April 21, 2010

    I am a product of Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care." If you ever see that book anywhere, BURN IT. My mother was one of those "helicopter" moms, although I never heard that term until right this minute. So, maybe Dr. Spock started it. One of my cousins on my dad's side said about me, "I think she turned out pretty good for a person who never had a childhood." I'm not so sure.

  3. April 21, 2010

    Dr. Spock admitted that all of his theories didn't work on his deathbed. So sad that women believed him all of those years. If they hadn't, parents and children wouldn't be in the messes that we are right now. I'm interested in reading this book. I don't believe in suffocating a child to death with hovering. But I don't believe mothers should have a hands off approach either–which too often can be an excuse for laziness or selfishness. It is a parents' job to be parents and create boundaries, train their children, work with their children, have attainable expectations–all of which requires dedication, effort, patience and tons of love. It is also a parents' job to make sure they "have their childrens' hearts"–build strong, healthy relationships with their children through fun family times, adventures together and getting to really understand our kids' gifts, talents, personalities, etc. It all comes down to relationships and the "fruit" we want to see down the line. Putting the time in early on reaps great relationships in adulthood.

  4. April 21, 2010

    If we got underfoot, or just happened to be there doing nothing, our parents would put us to work in the yard or house. Home was just a place to sleep and eat, if we could help it. We could skip lunch, but had to be home by dark for dinner.

    Discipline was almost always a whipping with belt or switch in front of God and everybody (even if Mom had to go to the belt department and borrow one of theirs), or a backhand cuff to the side or back of the head for bad manners or forgetting Maam or Sir. Needless to say, we were usually well behaved in public, and respectful to adults.

    We wouldn't be wasting any time in a corner, we'd be doing a chore or three after our whipping so we could think about what we did. If we were crying over nothing, they'd give us something to cry about. If we were grumpy or ill, we must need some caster oil. Occasionally we'd hear, "I told you not to, but go ahead, do it anyway," followed shortly by, "I told you. Are you going listen to me next time?" A little pain and minor injury can be a great teacher. We tend to remember those lessons longer.

  5. April 28, 2010

    I think that a lot of parents get over involved out of fear, they don't want to have their kids miss out on any advantage. I just picked up a really good book called Break Free of Parenting Pressures that helps with that anxiety.

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