Sunday, November 13, 2011

Parenting, Helicopters and Ostriches

Have you ever heard the expression “helicopter parent”? I’m sure many of you have. But in case you haven’t heard the phrase, it was coined in a book called Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster. W. Cline M.D. and Jim Fay, back in 1990.

Helicopter parents are parents who hover continuously around their kids, whether the parent’s help is needed or not. I see this all the time at our local school playground. Most of the time parents don’t even realize they are doing it.

I hear helicopter parents saying things like, “Erin, don’t touch that. Your hands will get dirty. Erin, watch out for the boys playing ball. You don’t want to get in their way.” They usually say something at least every 20 seconds. They are almost never outside of arm’s reach of the child.

With a young toddler who is just learning to walk, this makes sense. You can’t have 18-month old Matthew wandering in front of the swings only to get kicked to the ground by some other innocent child. But when your child is not in harm’s way, it’s time to relax and let your child learn on his own.

Kids learn through social interaction. If we hover over them and keep trying to help them through every little difficulty in life, we are robbing them of their chance to learn. By the way, this goes for non-social situations also. Things like getting dressed, putting on shoes, pouring the milk in the cereal bowl … parents should encourage their children to learn these skills on their own. Learning is a gift, and nobody likes to have their presents stolen, right?

But that’s not why I wrote this article. I really wrote it to talk about Ostrich Parents. I came up with this phrase while I was at the park with my kids because I asked myself, “What’s the opposite of a helicopter?”
In the context of parenting, my answer is an ostrich.

Ostrich parents have their heads buried in the sand. And by “sand”, I really mean buried in their iPhone, BlackBerry, phone conversation, newspaper article, or whatever. The point is that ostrich parents don’t pay much attention to their kids.

I think ostrich parenting is equally problematic because it robs the child of the opportunity to be coached and encouraged by his parent(s).

Your biggest job as a parent is to coach your child. In fact, I’ll go further and say that every major adult relationship a child has should be about coaching. Teachers, sports teams, nannies, uncles and aunts, grandparents, etc.

My kids have wonderful teachers at school. Those teachers expect the kids to do their own work, and to make their own mistakes which they can learn from. But those teachers are not ostriches. They don’t have their head stuck in the sand. They are paying attention to the kids and giving them the gentle advice and help that is required to foster learning and development.

Parents need to do the same thing. If you find yourself too distracted from the job of parenting, then you’re just an adult who happens to be in the same room as your child, interrupting to drop a snack in front of them, or to change the DVD, or wipe their bum. That’s ostrich parenting.

My father was an engineer. He taught me to think in terms of extremes. Helicopter parenting is one extreme. Ostrich parenting is the other extreme. If neither extreme seems like a good idea, then the right answer lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

In this case, I think the “coaching parent” is that middle point. Good coaches encourage, teach, support, and help out. But they also allow kids to have enough freedom to make mistakes and learn on their own. They also challenge kids to go beyond their comfort zones.

Be a coach parent.

Enjoy your children,

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