I’m a Helicopter Parent or a Shelter Parent?

This past weekend was Eldest’s college check-in, a week earlier than most other students because she’ll be playing soccer; while everything was abbreviated because of the tight schedule, the Dean of Student Life gave a brief talk to those few of us parents there, shortened from the fuller speech that he’ll give next weekend at regular orientation.  While he gave out a few informational tidbits, he also spent a fair period talking about the need for parents to step back from the kids and let them find their way.  What caught my attention was that by his definition, I fit the definition of a helicopter parent.  Seriously?

The Dean’s comments were that our generation of parents are reputed to be helicopter parents, who "hover" over the kids.  But in his description, our generation made it a point of attending all – or most – of the kids’ events, whether musical, theatric or sport.  He commented that his own father made it to perhaps one of his games when he himself played sports four decades ago.  But now it was time for us to step back and let the kids to care of the institution in their next phase of growing into adulthood.  While I might have misconstrued his comments – doubtful – what struck me was his narrow, misplaced definition of a helicopter parent.  Is it hovering to attend as many games, concerts and plays as possible or is that just part of being an engaged and active parent?  Are we actually smothering the kids by showing up consistently and repeatedly?

There is a practical and economic side to the increased attendance of today’s generation versus the grandparent’s generation that the Dean referenced.  Forty years ago, kids didn’t have the plethora of choices available for sporting and other activities that our own children have today.  There might have been a non-school related baseball or football organization, but there simply weren’t the options otherwise.  There’s also a fear amongst today’s parents that options must be made available to the kids; on the one hand, it permits them to grow and experience new activities that weren’t available to us when we were younger, and there’s a concern that if a kid isn’t kept busy, he or she will be more likely to fall prey to the scarier aspects of unsupervised life.  So parents willingly sign the kids up.  Now comes the economic aspect – with gas at high levels, the money being spent isn’t going to be wasted so the folks will assure that the kids make it where they need to be and then will stay because it doesn’t make sense to waste gas by leaving and then returning later.  The time spent on the road to and from the activity is literally wasted, so the thought is to make the best of things by bringing a novel, a laptop or in my case, the occasional notebook for ideas and thoughts.

What do the kids themselves want?  As I sat and made notes for this article yesterday, Youngest wandered in and asked what I was doing.  He listened and cocked his head, puzzled at the term helicopter parent; after I explained, he stated that he actually referred to them as shelter parents because their intent was to shelter their kids from any and all possible harm.  We discussed it from the standpoint of baseball – his first love – since his practices had started the previous evening.  Did he actually want me there and did he want me at his games?  The practice is a moot point because the field is located far enough into the countryside that I take a passport before leaving, but the games were a legitimate question.  He emphatically stated yeah, I like it when you see me play with the proviso that I not behave like a shelter parent.  To him, a shelter parent was one who interceded with the coach and referee when something went against the kid and when I asked about when he might be getting chewed out by the coach, he simply shook his head and commented that that was all part of it.  He referenced an incident at a ball game last year when a teammate’s irate father yelled at his coach and publicly pulled the teammate from the team and dugout because the coach had reprimanded him for poking a teammate in the eye with his finger and that would certainly qualify as a shelter parent.

Youngest’s term – shelter parent – is actually a better description than that which is commonly used.  It more accurately describes the issue of parent and child relations and also points out that the kids aren’t stupid, they really do understand there’s going to be a time when they have to take a place in the world and that we won’t be there, so they need to learn to deal with it.

Your kids want to have you there as much as possible.  They want to impress you and earn your respect and approval, so don’t worry about what others might think about your attendance.  It might be beneficial, if they’re old enough to understand, to have a talk with them about what does and doesn’t embarrass them so that there are some ground rules with which both kids and parents are comfortable.  Before that point, simply accept that they want you there.

Eldest is now going to play college soccer in another state and of about 14 games on her roster, her mother and I will only be able to attend two games.  We’ll follow the results on the college website and via updates from her, but we won’t be able to see her play as before.  So it’s guaranteed that in the next decade, I’ll attend every baseball and volleyball game, every concert and play that is practicable because it really does come to an end and when it does, I will miss it.  And the kids will miss us if we’re not there.  This isn’t hovering, it’s simply being a responsible and engaged parent.


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