Rivaling ‘helicopter parents,’ hands-off parents let their kids off the leash

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 outside advice.

“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.”

Chicago devotees

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 way.

“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, agrees.

“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.

“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.”

Information overload?

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 possible.

“(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 skills.

“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 prototype.

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 out-of-control world.”

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 before.

“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 enemy.

“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

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