a father with a hands-on approach to parenting takes his son fishing


Are you a free-range or helicopter parent? My advice is to get over it

Jul 23, 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.”

Relevant Reading: How I'm Teaching My Child to Ride Public Transit Without Me

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 — like a working mother who was arrested because her 9-year-old was playing unsupervised in a park — have inspired a first-ever free-range parent bill in Utah.

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 — one that finished his sentences and spoiled 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?

At the time, the idea of being a "helicopter parent" felt like a sucker punch.

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, as a society, are more fearful and socially are on this journey (one hopes) from more supervision toward more independence. It already has a name: Growing up. And that most of us, parents included, are progressing at our own pace and in our own ways — well, that is exactly what you should hope for and expect.

Relevant Reading: Here's Why I Think Roughhousing is Good For My Kids

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 debate? 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. 

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.

Add New Comment

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.