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Learning when to let go. Have you ever met a mother who is so obsessed with her child’s safety that even in a safe environment she fears letting the child out of her sight for fear danger lurks around every corner? How about the parent who stands on the sidelines of a sporting event, directing her child’s every play and then confronting the coach if her child is not getting enough play time? Last but not least, there is the parent who actually accompanies her young adult to the job interview, believing he or she is incapable of getting the job without her assistance. If any of these examples sound familiar, in this modern age of parenting that parent would be labeled a “helicopter mom,” or a hovering parent. According to Lise Youngblade, Ph.D., professor and head of human development and family studies at Colorado State University, there is a huge lack of research on this aspect of modern-day parenting, leaving many questions unanswered. It has become an interesting pop psychology phenomenon, one seen more in this generation of parents then in the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s. Overprotective and overbearing moms seem to be appearing from all directions, both in the city and the suburbs. This generation has produced a new breed of mothers (and fathers) determined to micromanage every aspect of their child’s developmental stages, even into and through adulthood.

The media admittedly have played a role in increasing awareness of safety concerns and crimes against children, but there has also been an increased desire on the part of parents to push their children’s competitive edge, to accelerate their skills in every area of development many times beyond the normal healthy developmental milestones. Dr. Youngblade explains, “As parents, we want our children to flourish, but this can happen only when the child has ownership of his or her own development within a secure base to explore. Kids have to take some hard knocks in life; you can be the parent who dusts them off, supports them and tells them to get back on the horse and try it again. Or (you can) be the parent who hovers over her child and is highly protective, so much so that the child is deprived of the opportunity to learn independent life skills.” Vanessa Schilling, mother of three sons, says she could be labeled a helicopter mom. She says the main factor in her overly protective attitude comes from fear and lack of control over her children and their safety. She realized when her oldest son turned 10 that he needed to learn to spread his wings, but for her there was always an underlying fear of what she could not control. Schilling says learning to accept this reality is a healthy part of her development as a parent and a challenge of learning to parent well.

Now that her 10-year-old son is asking for more freedom to ride his bike to his friends’ houses and occasionally walk to the local pool, both she and her husband have had to make a conscious effort to trust him and start letting go. Schilling believes her ability to let go has a lot to do with the individual child’s level of maturity when gauging how high a level of freedom and autonomy will be given. It may not be the same for each of her children; it will all depend on each child’s individual ability to handle responsibility and to be trustworthy with that freedom. Schilling admits letting go still is not easy — “it is something that as a parent you just have to keep working on.” According to Dr. Youngblade, children are born with an innate drive to want to learn to be independent. As a child development specialist, Youngblade suggests parents take a step back and ask themselves a critical question: Will my intervention in the situation interfere with my child developing the skills necessary to be a functioning, independent adult, with skills that will serve him lifelong, and can I play the supportive role without interfering with his innate desire for independence?

“As parents, we want life to be kind to our child. Safe risks teach autonomy, creating healthy, well-functioning adults who have developed life skills for their futures,” says Dr. Youngblade.

By COURTNEY DRAKE-MCDONOUGH