Recently, while visiting a friend's house, I was asked this very interesting question: "What do you think about parents who let their children run wild and don't even seem to notice? My neighbor doesn't even stop her child from climbing my bookcases when they come for a play date. I think they call it 'free-range' parenting or something like that."
I countered with a question of my own: "What do you think of those parents who micromanage everything their child does? I think they call those 'helicopter parents.'"
She smiled at me and said, "Yes, helicopter parents are really controlling. That isn't good. The child can't make any decisions without the parent being there to make sure all goes well. But the answer to the helicopter parenting problem isn't becoming a free-range parent, is it? I just couldn't stop taking responsibility for my own child and couldn't allow my child to ruin someone else's house in such a disrespectful way as I have seen done."
My heart thrilled as I saw my friend sort these opposites out in her mind. There is hardly a hotter parenting topic than the free-range versus helicopter parenting discussion happening now. Some people have blogs dedicated to discussing free-range parenting, and there are even scheduled free-range parenting events such as a group who literally let their children walk alone through New York City.
Good Parents Follow Principles, Not Social Conclusions
As society tries to choose between these two extreme parenting models, it seems to most people that if one option feels wrong then the other option must be correct. I suggest that the answer may lie in the middle, apart from "flying things." After all, children aren't chickens, and parents shouldn't be helicopters.
I live in what is considered rural America where people do free-range chicken farming. At any given time of the day, I can drive my car down certain streets and see chickens on the side the road doing their thing. I have almost hit free-range chickens with my car and have seen dead chickens on the road.
Calling the type of parenting where parents let children walk home from a park or school alone "free-range" is not a good term to use at all. Chickens can't be taught safety but children can.
However, parents shouldn't hover. It can be damaging to a child to have a parent control every aspect of a child's life and constantly shield them from every garden hose they might trip on or every bicycle they might fall off. Not only does this teach the child that the world is not safe to set foot in, it also stresses the parent out. Stressed parents are not joyful parents.
A good parent doesn't look to social conclusions to determine how they will raise their children; they look to principle.
On Roles and Principles
Both free-range parenting and helicopter parenting are modern progressive forms of parenting that ignore self-evident roles.
The parent's role in a family is to teach skills and principles, correct problems, protect and nurture. The child's role in the family is to learn principles and skills for adulthood, grow, serve and help and find purpose for life.
If a parent lets her child run all over someone else's house or play roughly with other children, the parent is not doing her role. If the parent makes sure the child never does anything wrong and protects him from cause and effect or failure, then the parent isn't honoring the child's role as a learner.
A principled parent consistently corrects his child's problems and teaches him the skills he needs to conquer the problem with less correction in the future. These parents also deliberately give their child the opportunity to learn adult skills, like how to navigate a city street and how to get help in a public place. If all the parents involved in debating this social parenting decision are honoring their roles and their children's roles as described above, then both options are right.
Contrarily, if both types of parents are not honoring roles, but are simply going with the flow of a parenting model because it's considered "modern" and "progressive," then they're both wrong. Free-range parents would be wrong for abandoning their children when they need teaching and security, and helicopter parents would also be harming their children by eliminating cause and effect from their children's lives. Children need to be afforded learning moments after being taught correct principles.
Many people would probably call me a free-range parent. I want my kids to learn adult skills that they can do hard things, so I'll frequently let them ride long distances on their bikes or encourage them to do tasks on their own. Conversely, other parents might think of me as a helicopter parent since I advocate correcting children consistently, and even tell other parents that the key to correcting problems is to correct the problem the same way as often as possible.
Instead of considering myself either of these kinds of parents, I consider myself a principled parent. Principled parents know their roles, consistently correct their children to teach cause and effect, and always focus on deliberately teaching adult skills while still keeping the child safe.
What kind of parent are you?