Helicopter Parents, Tiger Moms, and Free Range Dads, Oh My!

Last weekend, my wife and I took my son to the playground. As we arrived, an older girl was climbing a curved, metal ladder that extended to a platform about five feet high. After studying her, I could tell my son was eager to climb. He shuffled his hands on the metal rails and lifted his feet to the first rung. His two-year-old motor skills were developed just enough to maintain balance. I kept my distance, a few feet away.

As he climbed, he was looking around at kids darting across a bridge. His legs wobbled. Keep your distance, Billy, keep your distance. After regaining focus, he climbed three-quarters of the way up the ladder but a boy screamed on the slide causing him to turn his head and he completely missed a rung, his leg dangled in the air, torso pressed against the ladder. Keep your distance, Billy, keep your distance. He regrouped and kept climbing and reached the top and stepped on the platform. He stood with raised hands and a mile-wide smile. “I do it all by myself,” he said, before running to the slide. I released a deep breath.

I’m learning to navigate the tension of parenting, knowing when to intervene and when to make room for my child to take risks. It’s tough. I didn’t want my toddler son to smash his head into the ground. But if I intervened I would have removed the risk that allowed him to accomplish a steep climb. I would have robbed him of newfound self-confidence. It was awesome to watch him smile on top of the platform and I wish I could say I am the trusting parent who always errs on the side of stepping away and managing my own anxiety. But that would be a big fat lie.

I am an anxious daddy. And here is what I hate to admit:  I am at risk of becoming a helicopter parent. Maybe I already am one. Ugh. I don’t want to swarm my child with anxiety, undermining his ability to make decisions and care for himself. I don’t want to be THAT parent. Nor do I want to be a tiger mom (always pushing my child.) And I don’t think I will ever be a free-range daddy, even though I like the ideas associated with this parenting style. So, where do I stand?

I’ve not spent significant time discerning whether or not I am a helicopter parent or tiger mom or free-range dad. I wasn’t interested in the debate until I read last Sunday about Mike Lanza’s Playborhood in The New York Times Magazine. His radical parenting philosophy, the polar opposite of a helicopter parent, jarred me. It left me with much to ponder. The gist of the article is that Lanza created a Playborhood (a creative and inviting playground) in the backyard of his suburban, San Francisco neighborhood. It is a space for his children and neighborhood kids to engage in unsupervised, free play and take risks which he considers a key ingredient to growth.

After reading it, his parenting ideas caused my head to spin. Lanza is talking about more than benign wrestling matches in the backyard; he allows his kids access to the attic of their home, which contains a door to the roof (a two story home) where they can hang out. Also, they climb to the roof of a backyard playhouse and jump off onto a large trampoline.

His ideas are extreme and make me uncomfortable. Yet, I have to admit they are compelling and I believe he has put his finger on a real problem, the toxic anxiety of modern parenting. His free play philosophy is so striking because it runs counter to conventional parenting norms.

To be clear, I really don’t think we can label parents and shove them into rigid boxes on different ends of the spectrum. But for the sake of thoughtfulness, I think it is helpful to use the categories to help you think through your parenting style.

I resist these labels because I don’t think rigid parenting philosophies are what children need. Parenting is a relationship. It involves two unique human beings. Two complicated people. And to make a parent-child relationship work flexibility is needed and one must always be adjusting to the needs of the other. I would never seek out a marriage philosophy or a philosophy to relate to my parents or grandparents or other family members. So, it seems a bit silly to think we can formulate parenting philosophies as if parenting is a one way relationship that is not changing every day. It seems subscribing to a parneting philosophy takes your eyes off the kid in front of you and their particular needs and places it on your self and the needs of your ego.

I want to be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and wave my own flag. I want to be the fluid parent that looks at my child and their stage in development and draws the resources I need based on where they are at. I am not interested in rigid philosophies and adhereing to them at all costs. I need more flexibility. I’m not a tiger mom or a free range dad or a helicopter parent. I am me.

There are parts I admire about both ends of the spectrum. I want to blend the attentiveness of the helipcopter parent with the trust of the free range parent. I want to be present to address my kid’s needs but I also want to respect his boundaries and make sure he has room to take risks and do what he needs to learn and grow.

One of the parents I admire most in our social circle is one that I consider resourceful. She doesn’t strike me as an anxious, hovering parent nor does she strike me as the parent who embraces any extremes of free play. She seems to stand somewhere in the middle. I would argue what makes her so skillful is her knack to find the resources her child needs to deal with whatever problem is present. She knows how to be aware of what is going on in her kid’s life and then turn and find the help needed.

She is a self-aware parent, which I think is a critical skill for parents to hone and develop more so than developing a specific parenting philosophy. Its often our own crap, our own unresolved issues, that impact our kids the most. Sure, there are plenty of real dangers in the world but are we aware of the issues we force our kids to deal with under our roof everyday. These are the things more likely to derail them–addiction, abuse, neglect, uncontrolled anger. The things we must turn away from the world to see and look inward.

I know this idea does not sound as interesting or exciting as a tiger mom or free range dad. Maybe it sounds kinda boring. Maybe a bit obvious or old fashioned. I think people like Mike Lanza are in the headlines because their extreme views invite discussion and prove interesting. That is fine and I think he offers exciting ideas. But I don’t think our kids need newspapers headlines or extreme ideas. They need stable, reliable, and resourceful parents who can problem solve when physical and emotional issues arise. And also know when to leave kids alone.

An Open Letter To Pumpkin Spice Cheerios

I’m not that kind of guy. I’m loyal. A man committed to regular Cheerios. Sure, sometimes I try apple cinnamon and honey nut, but I always come back to my steady. My plain pulverized oats.

I rolled my cart past you, but the next week I saw you again and gazed at your burnt orange box. On your cover, the miniature pumpkin and bundled cinnamon sticks, artfully arranged next to a wooden spoon, caused my hands to tingle. I resisted but knew it was only a matter of time. I would give myself to your seasonal spices.

At home, I stalked you on-line. I read your reviews. I studied your ingredients: 6 parts ground cinnamon, 1 part nutmeg, 1 part ginger, 1/2 part allspice, and 1/2 part ground cloves.

For a few days, I forgot about you until I returned to the store. In a moment of weakness, on a sleep deprived day with my toddler son in the cart, I drifted towards your end cap. I stared at your wall of burnt orange. I noticed your sale price and, finally, I grabbed you off the shelf and held you eye-level. I flipped you to your backside and found more cinnamon sticks and pumpkins. I could no longer resist you. I gave in to my desires.

At home, I hid you in the pantry between the Go Lean Crunch and Raisin Bran because I felt guilt. The moment I treasured most with you was during my son’s naptime when I poured a bowl of you and watched you turn my milk a shade of brown. Your pumpkin puree overwhelmed my taste buds. And left me with a belly full of regret. I knew I had betrayed my plain Cheerios.

At dinner, I told my wife what I had done. I asked her to keep an open mind. I told her I was experimenting. She shook her head and silently judged me. I felt like a seasonal sucker and owned by you and fallen to an onslaught of fall marketing madness. I told myself I would not taste you again.

So, I threw you in the trash because the emotional toll became too much. But a few hours later, after my wife went to bed, I retrieved you. I did this because things are so exciting when you are around. Yet, I know I can’t keep doing this. I feel torn. It’s too much. You have to go.

Goodbye,

Billy

Calling All Parents: 5 Reasons You Need To Go To The Pump and Dump

You know the feeling. The numbness in your brain, the hollow look in your eyes, and the uncertainty about when you last showered. It’s the feeling you get when you reach your parenting limits. When you are done.

If you are on the verge of a childcare meltdown, I’ve got a solution for you that involves laughter and a night spent with people who get your pain. You need The Pump and Dump. It’s a raw and honest show about parenting that will make you laugh so hard you’ll snort. This stay-at-home dad experienced the show last time it visited Nashville and cracked-up until his side hurt. (I wrote about it on Scary Mommy.)

So, if laughter and time away from your kids are not of interest to you, that is fine. But for the other 99.9% of parents, I suggest you purchase a ticket to The Pump and Dump. Here are five reasons (and five clips) to persuade you.

5. “Everybody needs a little me time for themselves.” Yep, you deserve a break. I’m talking about dropping your parenting duties and getting outside the four walls of your home. Let’s be honest. If you don’t get away from little people, you are gonna lose it. I think this clip will speak to your need to escape.

4. You need to laugh at your craziness. Parenting makes all of us a little bit nuts. It’s natural. When you are put in charge of a small human being it is easy to lose perspective. This song is about the bond (sometimes a bit crazy) that we form with our kids.

3. You need time with people who get the mind numbing work of parenting. Changing diapers. Filling bottles. Cleaning up playroom disasters. And, don’t forget, there is always that one thing you hate doing. The thing that kills your soul. Here is a clip about the pain of tedious parenting responsibilities.

2. You need to poke fun at your spouse. Are you not tired of their crap? If my wife emails me another parenting article about toddler discipline, I’m gonna lose my mind. Besides, it’s healthy to vent. The Pump and Dump takes a few jabs at dads, which I’m cool with because we can take it. To be fair, we really do need to quit acting like a baby wrap makes us a novelty. Although, I like the attention. I’m not gonna lie.

1. YOU need a little bit of affirmation. Seriously, parenting is hard work. It’s time to recognize the fact you are doin’ just fine. You are an awesome parent. Check out this song. It will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Just do it.

The Pump and Dump will be in Nashville this week (October 19th and 20th) and other cities across the country in the following weeks. If you need a laugh and a night away from the kids, ORDER TICKETS here. Don’t worry. The show lasts an hour and a half so you can be in bed by ten. See you there!