Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The No-Fly Zone of Helicopter Parents

I grew up in Italy, the eldest daughter of two full-time working young outgoing energetic parents. My parents were always very present in my life (sometimes too much). And so were my grandparents. Like many Italian children whose parents were working, I used to be looked after by my grandma and grandpa. In many ways, you could probably say that I had two sets of parents. And yet, I was able to walk to school by myself, to go to the beach with other people, to roam around in freedom until 11pm on hot summer Italian nights, playing in very dark places with my young friends. No phones, no means of being tracked down other than my dad shouting from the window: “Vanessa, time to come home!” when the clock had struck 11pm. I then used to beg for some extra time which was usually granted to me. I was only 10 or maybe younger. It wasn't in a green place. It was in a city (though on the coast), full of houses and apartment blocks and some sporadic poorly kept parks. Bad people used to be around then as they are now: drug abusers, drunkards, paedophiles. You name it. But as no one talked about them, even less the media, we weren't fully aware of the danger and parents didn’t seem to be too worried about it either, backed up by well spread ignorance. I took on my first proper competitive sport (volleyball) when I was 11. Mums and dads used to come along on Sundays to watch the games but they were never allowed to stick around for the weekly training sessions!! At the age of 14, my parents bought my first moped for me. Most of my friends had one too. At that point, I was free to go literally wherever I wanted. Though I was a very responsible young lady who hardly ever abused of her parents trust, I occasionally got myself in trouble. But they never found out. 

I am a mum of two now. I have directly experienced the Italian style, the British style as well as the Canadian one. I can honestly say that the they don’t differ much other than the Canadian being more oriented towards many outdoor sports, for instance, and the Italian/British being oriented towards a few organized competitive sports as well as the arts (and good food). But times have changed, and so has parenting. The surge of ready available technology as well as a growing awareness and a higher level of education of the parents have resulted in a shift of the way we think we should bring up our children. Boredom, which many psychologists swear is the number one stimulus for creativity is now perceived as enemy N.1. Our children cannot bear being bored. We cannot bear them being bored – as that has an immediate impact on the quality of our (parents) lives. So, we end up organizing their day from morning to evening, from January to December, packing it up with activities, sports, classes, camps, play dates, trips....anything under the sun. Even schools seem to have followed the trend. The tedious tasks of sitting down in an orderly manner and writing endless numbers of letters and equations have now been replaced by a "fun learning” approach which usually implies that no child has to keep his/her attention span going for more than ten minutes on one task. After that, it’s time to move on! We have created a vicious circle, whereby children  are actually incapable of entertaining themselves with any activities other than those fully organized for them (by the parents). When they don’t (and inevitably find solace in diabolic electronic devices) we feel compelled to fit in one more thing to do in their (and our) already extremely busy schedule. And the nightmare goes on. Something that should make us happy is in fact becoming a source of stress for an increasing number of modern parents and children. And if you try to rebel against this mentality, you feel somehow as if you are letting your kids down.

It’s no one's fault other than our own. We have passed our fear of not being constantly stimulated, of not looking always busy onto our children. But quantity doesn't make up for quality. And being busy doesn't mean being productive, let alone happy. Are we not just creating a bunch of spoiled, scarcely independent individuals who are increasingly unable to listen to the so
und of their own thoughts? The best ideas come when we pause and think, not when we move and do. 

Why are we doing it then? Psychologists believe that modern parents are anxious about the future success of their kids and think that clearing every path for them will help them to achieve their ambitious goals. Some want to continue the kinds of bond they had when their children were younger by feeding the illusion that as adults, they aren't  actually getting old. Some others expect their children to supply the happiness missing from their marriages or their own social life. In all cases, the truth is that we are putting our own emotional needs ahead of the developmental needs of our children. Too much love can be as detrimental as too little. 

We need to learn to stand back and let them be. Let them be bored, even. If we want to be helicopters, first we need to teach our children how to fly. And then, only if they crash...we parachute ourselves in. Making sure that, once again, we don't land on their heads.