Yes, You Can Be a Helicopter Parent and Still Raise an Independent Kid

Free-range, anti-technology parenting advocates would probably hate the way my mother raised me. An ’80s “Smother,” she played an active role in my life from birth until, well, present day. In the era before tracking apps, we were expected to call when we arrived where we were going. When my parents built their humble suburban ranch, they intentionally chose the lot that would allow my mother to watch me walk back and forth from the elementary school at the bottom of the hill.

When I was finally old enough to be sent off to buy breakfast cereal, I was merely dismissed from my mother’s shopping cart two aisles away. If I got caught up in looking at the latest edition of MAD magazine and didn’t return promptly my mom didn’t need to rely on the store’s Amber Alert lockdown system; she simply shouted my name until I reappeared out of sheer embarrassment.

When a middle school guidance counselor felt free to scream her bad day down my throat for asking the wrong question, my mother marched into her office and verbally shamed her in front of all of her colleagues. When Residence Life stuck me with a nutcase for a roommate in college, my mother informed the head administrator that I was “just as good for this university as this university is for her” and scored me a coveted private room.

In other words, my mother was the original helicopter parent. She would have been the bane of the free-range movement’s existence, except for one thing: I grew into a fiercely independent woman despite, or perhaps because of, her hawkish parenting.

So, what is it that my mother did so differently from today’s obsessive helicopter parents? In a recent critique of the Netflix series Black Mirror, Julie Kelly observes that technology now enables parents to “micro-manage our children into, and sometimes beyond, adulthood…” Grades can be monitored via app in real time; children can be accessed via text or Facetime 24/7; every milestone is marked on social media. In short,

The adult’s life revolves around the teen’s schedule, which is meticulously managed on synched, cell phone calendars. While we blame technology for the self-centeredness and disconnect we see in our children, aren’t we ultimately to blame?

My mother thinks parents who use tracking apps are bizarre. “That would be invasive,” was her actual response. I considered the fact that both my brother and I still call our mom on a regular basis. That’s when it hit me. Mom might have parented like a hawk, but the onus of responsibility was always on our shoulders. We were supposed to call and check in. We were supposed to initiate the problem-solving sequence at school. We were responsible to make good choices when we went out with friends. The problem isn’t keeping an eye on your kids. The problem is not teaching your kids to keep an eye on themselves.

“It isn’t that I don’t trust you,” my mother would always say, “it’s that I don’t trust anyone else.” So much for the ambiguous political correctness of the smartphone generation. Long before tracking and consent apps were ever developed, the original Smothers knew the best way to keep their kids safe was to lead by example.