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Free Range vs Helicopter: Get over it

Jul 31, 2018

"Oh look, another mainstream article that pits free-range parents against the ones in the helicopters. Pardon me while I barf a little in my mouth," is what I thought when I happened upon it. Of all the parenting lore and gore that bounces around in the public sphere, I think none is as pervasive and poisonous as this debate.

Even Danielle Meitiv, the so-called “Free Range Mom,” seems more than a little uncomfortable with the moniker. “There’s no such thing as ‘free-range,’” she has said. “This is normal parenting.”

The Meitiv family gained notoriety in 2015 after their kids ran afoul of the Montgomery County Child Services. Their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter were seen returning from and playing in a local park near their home in two separate incidents. Yes, that story. The fallout prompted a change to child protection policy in Maryland, where they live. That and similar incidents have inspired a first-ever free-range parent law in Utah which you also may have heard about.

Like most parents, I stumbled upon the whole helicopter versus free-range debate. It may have been the Meitiv family’s case or the hype around Lenore Skenazy’s book Free-Range Kids, published the year my son was born. I was relatively new to parenting and scrambling to find my comfort zone in the many fraught and divisive parenting debates. I knew, for example, that I was for cloth diapers and the Ferber technique (bring on the hate mail) but tactfully non-committal on leaving kids in the car for short periods.

At the time, the idea of being a "helicopter parent" felt like a sucker punch. My son’s independence was growing by the moment. It was hard not to feel like an ominous presence looming over him, finishing his sentences and spoiling his fun. That transition — helpless baby to marauding toddler and beyond — is a tough one. Reading things that suggested to back off and do less did not help.

That has a lot to do with the fact that I am a hands-on dad. Which is the one label I don’t mind. You want finger-paint, sand cakes or to roll down a grassy hill? I am right there with you. The idea that parents, especially dads, could be too involved — well, like I said, it felt like a sucker punch. How else do you really describe it?

It took me a long time to realize that these helicopter and free-range labels didn’t apply to any parents I actually knew and that these sensational water-cooler-worthy tales were the exception. There are more than 6 million people in Maryland and only one Meitiv family.

I also realized these stories were really a new hook for fairly typical articles about how we are, as a society, more fearful and socially disconnected. Both of which may be true but contribute very little to folks in parenting trenches.
Gradually it dawned on me that this whole free-range and helicopter debate was really a continuum and that all of us, kids included, were on this journey (one hopes) from more supervision toward more independence. That it already had a name: Growing up. And that most of us, parents included, were progressing at our own pace and in our own ways… and that is exactly what you should hope for and expect.

For the record, I applaud Utah’s so-called free-range law. Good for Utah. Free the kids. But I can also understand why most jurisdictions in North America seem to want more latitude to investigate possible neglect including—maybe, sometimes—kids who appear to be just hanging out in a park with no parents in sight. I can also see why child protection authorities might err on the side of caution when investigating public complaints. Would I be pissed off if my kids—all three of whom are kept as safe and under-supervised as possible—got caught up in that kind of error? You bet. Would it change my mind on this ridiculous? Not likely.

But while I’m sitting around waiting for that to happen, how about we just put this clumsy, gag inducing free-range vs. helicopter debate behind us.

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Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Read more from Rob here.

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called The Ugly Mothers.

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