They whiz about the park with the speed of a
hummingbird. They hover over their kids at a soccer game as a
vulture would its prey. "Helicopter parents" are the most talked
about and contested parents on the planet.
Their love, care and concern for their children blindly
goes where many other parents dare not. Yet they care little about
others' opinions of them. Helicopter parents are constantly judged
but are often unaware of how their actions affect their children
and other relationships.
A new parenting movement, however, threatens to ground
helicopter parents. Called "instinctive parenting" by some and
"hands-off parenting" by others, techniques that place less
emphasis on what our children do and more on who we want them to be
are turning parenting on its head.
One leader of the hands-off movement is Ada Calhoun, a
mom, founding editor-in-chief of Babble.com and author of
Instinctive Parenting, Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids
(Gallery Books, 2010). In her book, Calhoun begs us to ditch the
"universal 'best'" we desire for our children and instead focus on
what matters: "providing the few absolute essentials (love, food,
shelter) while teaching your little one how to be a kind,
responsible human being."
Much of her book focuses on parents learning to trust
their gut when making decisions, rather than over-relying on
"Everyone's a parenting expert now," Calhoun says,
explaining why she decided to write her book. "I realized that,
actually, I know as much as these people who are on 'Good Morning
America' telling me what to do, and it gave me the confidence to
think nobody really knows what my family needs at any given moment
more than I do."
To some, it may sound blasphemous to brush aside expert
advice, but there are plenty of parents out there who rely on their
own instincts instead of what others tell them to do.
Laura Merlo, mom to 2-year-old Dylan and 8-month-old Jack,
of Chicago's Lincoln Park, says she "doesn't sweat the small stuff"
and tries to give her kids "the room to grow and explore on their
own." Her children, she says, are allowed to discover things and
consequences for themselves unless it puts them in harm's
"High-stress parents make me uncomfortable," Merlo says.
"Kids are kids; they are going to experiment and try things out. I
can't stand to hear myself nag at my child about something she will
eventually learn not to do later."
Dan Gill, a licensed clinical professional counselor at
the Family Institute at Northwestern in Northbrook,
"I think when parents are hyper-vigilant and
over-involved, they are not instilling leadership skills in their
kids," Gill says. "They are undermining kids' abilities to figure
stuff out on their own."
Melanie Myatt, a mom of four in Rogers Park, experienced
this when her oldest went to a sleepover camp this past summer. An
otherwise laid-back parent, she felt herself get increasingly
anxious about whether or not her daughter would remember to use
sunscreen, bug repellent and shampoo her hair properly while at
"Camp made me realize that I can be controlling," Myatt
says. "I would never describe myself as that usually."
But she admits her daughter's camp experience was a
learning process for everyone.
"What I had to learn is that next year, five days without
bug spray and not rinsing out the shampoo won't be the end of the
world," Myatt says. "It's good preparation for both of us when she
gets to college and I'll really have to let go."
For some parents, however, letting go is hard when
information and opinions about sleep training, potty training,
feeding and discipline abound in any and every format
"(The Internet) should be liberating, but actually we know
too much in a way," Calhoun says. "We can kind of freeze because we
have 50 different strategies and they seem equally related, so what
one do you pick? No choice is perfect."
Sheryl Stoller, a certified parent coach at Stoller Parent
Coaching in Oak Park, says she thinks the Internet can be helpful,
but only if parents use it as a complement to their own parenting
"When we get clarity, the media is not our enemy," Stoller
says. "When we are inner-driven to focus on helping our child know
who they are and that it doesn't matter what school they go to, but
what matters is that they know themselves, love themselves, it's a
whole different realm."
Heather Jagher would fit this parental
The mom of 5-year-old Zoe and 2-year-old Levi calls
herself "laid back but not negligent." She's apt to give herself a
break and let the little things slide as long as her kids are
healthy and happy. Anxious, she is not.
"I use my gut instinct and do what I can in my day to have
fun, relax and survive," Jagher says. "I give myself a break if our
meal doesn't have all the food groups, if Zoe's outfit doesn't
match or her teeth weren't brushed."
Jagher's more relaxed attitude may be benefitting her
children in the long run. Lynn Shyman of Jewish Child and Family
Services in Skokie has noticed that anxious parents tend to raise
more anxious kids.
"The world we live in is anxiety provoking," Shyman says.
"I think that's why frequently parents will do helicopter parenting
because they are trying to care for and protect their kids in an
But Shyman warns that over-parented kids have
under-developed coping skills. In addition, Shyman is treating
children with anxiety disorders at a younger age than ever
"It connects to a parent not being able to stand back and
let a child understand that they have the ability and confidence to
figure things out," Shyman says. "Parents instead are giving the
message, 'I'm helping you do this.'"
Perhaps at the end of the day, it's not the Internet or
the world around that makes parents act in certain ways. Hands off
or overbearing, sometimes a parent can just be his own worst
"I think the best advice I got was recently after I was
stressing out because my kid would not go to bed and I was worried
he wasn't going to ever do anything," Calhoun says. "I e-mailed his
godmother, my best friend, and she just told me I'd get through it.
Basically, I just needed to relax." n
Sara Fisher is a mother of two living in Roscoe Village. She also blogs at selfmademom.net.
See more of Sara's stories here.
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