This article first appeared on SHE'SAID' and has been republished with permission.
When my daughters were little, we did a lot of time at our neighborhood playgrounds.
I’d park myself on a bench with a book, or chat with my friends while the kids played. Sometimes, I’d push them on a swing, or spot them on the monkey bars, but for the most part, I encouraged them to play with other kids and entertain themselves. After all, when my brothers and sisters and I were kids, my parents didn’t go to the playground at all — they sent us on our way and went about their grown-up business at home.
One day, another parent rushed over to tell me that my younger daughter had fallen and scraped her knee. I remember the way he looked at me – I might as well have left the kids at the playground and gone drinking at the corner bar, judging by the look on his face. Back then, the term “helicopter parent” hadn’t yet fully taken off, but over the last decade, it’s become endemic, particularly in Brooklyn, where “parenting” is practically a competitive sport.
The thing is, if parenting is a sport, I’m unclear what the goal is for these hyper-vigilant moms and dads.
To my mind, the goal of raising kids is to make them into self-sufficient adults who are kind, smart, and capable of taking care of themselves. To these helicopter parents, the goal seems to be to micromanage their children’s lives and provide a buffer between them and the world, never allowing their precious child to experience anything unpleasant, or have anything less than the very best life has to offer.
There are kids who can read the entire Harry Potter series of books on their own, but who can’t even make themselves a sandwich. Their parents aren’t teaching them the basics of getting along in life: how to make a bed, how to use a knife, how to cross the street alone. These kids are getting the best education money can buy, but they have no idea how to read a map or load a dishwasher. They’re so used to having someone else overseeing their lives — packing their backpacks for them, doing their laundry, tying their shoes, even, quite literally, wiping their butts — that they go off to college and are utterly helpless.
A friend of mine works as an advising dean at an Ivy League school, and tells me she’s had parents call and ask if she’ll run over to campus after-hours with a spare key for their child, who can never remember his keys. When she tells them that their precious little one is an adult who needs to be responsible for himself, and that running spare keys to students is outside her job description, they’re livid. Parents write letters demanding that exceptions be made when their child blatantly breaks the rules, they call professors to ask that their child be given a better grade, and they pull strings to get their kids internships and jobs while said kids are smoking weed and playing video games in a basement somewhere.
I first put my daughter on a subway by herself when she was ten years old. She took ballet lessons in Manhattan every day after school, and I could no longer accompany her all the time; I had to pick her sister up from school, and make dinner, and do all the other things single moms have to do. Sure, there were days when she cried and begged me not to make her ride the train alone – but she wanted to go to ballet badly enough that she sucked it up and did what she had to do.
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After a few months, she was an old hand at riding the subway alone, and she was proud of herself. She was the first of her friends to be allowed to go places alone, and she was just fine. Sure, there was the time she missed her stop and ended up in Harlem instead of midtown, and the time some creeps catcalled her on the platform, causing her to get on the first train that came just to get away from them — and it was the wrong train.
Those incidents just made her more streetwise; she learned how strong and capable she is, and that she can handle anything.
Now, at sixteen, she lives in another city, a six-hour drive away, training at a professional ballet company school and living in a dorm with other dancers. She makes her own breakfast and lunch every day, buys her own pointe shoes (and sews the ribbons on), and manages her own class and rehearsal schedule, on top of her homework and community service requirements. My younger daughter, still at home with me, rides the bus and subway alone all the time, buoyed by her big sister’s example of independence.
This isn’t to say I’m the world’s best mom, or that I have remarkable kids. Of course I think they’re great, but objectively, they’re pretty average. And I screw up all the time. But I let them screw up too, and that’s the difference between my kids and the ones whose parents are making calls to their university deans, begging someone to hold their grown-up child’s hand.
Some of my best memories of childhood are of times my parents were a little bit neglectful: walking barefoot over a railroad bridge with my big sister (I stepped on broken glass and she had to carry me home bleeding and crying, but we’re lucky we didn’t get hit by an actual train), riding my bike around our neighborhood for hours, getting lost and being chased by dogs, but loving the feeling of the wind in my hair, and no one knowing where I was.
You’re not going to be around for your kids forever.
Being a parent is about letting go, and teaching them to survive without you.
So go ahead and let them fall. Sit on the playground bench and read your book. Even better, let them go to the playground without you. That’s how you win at parenting — by raising people who don’t need you anymore.