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Helicopter criticized for overzealous presence, but letting go is hard

Bubble boy

Bubble boy

In the movie Bubble Boy, actress Swoosie Kurtz plays an overprotective mom of a boy born without an immune system. She becomes such a zealot in shielding him from the “evil, filthy world” that when his missing immune system materializes at age 4, she opts not to tell him, or anyone, the good news.

Instead, she keeps up the charade that he must live in a sterile plastic bubble under her constant surveillance, or die. She feeds him only homemade organic cookies, along with a steady diet of twisted truths to keep him from wanting out.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays her wide-eyed son, eventually busts out – not because he wants to be free of his mother’s extreme helicopter parenting, but because he needs to follow his heart and stop the girl next door, who’s on her way to Niagara Falls to marry the wrong guy.

A comedic road trip adventure ensues and, in the end, everyone is happy and it all works out. Bubble Boy isn’t even mad at his mom for trying to keep him from experiencing real life.

I have always loved Swoosie Kurtz’s character because, deep down, I am Bubble Boy’s mom.

Easy for me to say, now that my four offspring are fully fledged and flying solo. Ever since my baby left the nest, it’s been Black Hawk down. If anything, I’ve become Safety Net Mom.

But for those of you still on active duty, there is a rising chorus of experts calling you out for your hovering. And it’s not just the hovering – critics of helicopter parenting say the real hazard of having a round-the-clock relationship with your child is that you’re stifling their ability to learn important life skills, and stunting their natural urge to figure things out for themselves.

You know who you are.

From the time you wake them up, until you check to make sure they’re asleep at night, you have a short leash on your kids. You shuttle them between school and seasonal extracurricular sporting, musical or LEGO-related activities. In between you check their homework, intervene during sibling disputes, and regulate everything from gadget time to snack time.

Your worst critics say you are setting them up for a lifetime of therapy, where they will explore the dark space of their inner emptiness – that place that should have been filled with lessons learned by trial and error.

Better to release them into the wild, take a giant step back and allow your kids to be kids. Let them walk through the woods, past the poison ivy, taking a shortcut across the railroad tracks to get to the ball field. Perhaps through mud. Or using a rope swing. Without supervision.

What’s the worst that could happen?

I started thinking about all this after reading “The Overprotected Kid,” at theatlantic.com about a European “adventure playground” in North Wales called The Land. It is the antithesis of any playground you’ve visited with your kids. In fact, parents are generally discouraged from stepping into The Land. Kids come to explore in the presence of trained “playworkers,” who watch but rarely intervene.

Judging from a trailer to a documentary about The Land (playfreemovie.com), it’s basically like Neverland, only with a junkyard feel, where old mattresses are trampolines, ticking crocodiles and pirates may or may not lurk, and kids use hammers, nails and handsaws to create makeshift equipment for games they invent by the warmth of impromptu campfires they ignite and tend.

The Land was conjured by those who believe today’s kids need a little alone time. In that context, the article also looks at how and why we changed, from a culture in which kids roamed free to one in which they aren’t allowed to leave home without parental supervision:

∎ In the early 1980s Adam Walsh became a poster child for stranger danger and shorthand for “someone might kidnap and kill my kid if I let him out of my sight” – even though statistically a parent is much more likely to abduct a child than a stranger.

∎ Busy working baby boomers led to a generation of latchkey kids who are now, as parents, over-compensating by making sure their kids are never left alone.

∎ Playgrounds have become plastic-and-rubber structures featuring predictable outcomes. They are colorful, convenient and inviting – and lead to prescribed play.

I stand firmly on the middle ground, next to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a Philadelphia pediatrician who wrote Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings. He acknowledges that having a child is like having your heart on the outside of your body.

“The result is that you protect, protect, protect without realizing that overprotection stifles growth in a big way,” says Ginsburg. He has tips for parents, which include “getting out of the way” and assures us that if we heed his wisdom, we can raise our kids to master the “seven crucial Cs” – competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control – “so they can excel in life and bounce back from challenges.”

Two more thoughts. One, from Lenore Skenazy, a mom, author and founder of freerangekids.com, who says parents have two parallel fears that force them into helicopter mode: “That their children will die, and that they won’t go to Harvard.”

Which is a perfect segue to thought No. 2, regarding Kwasi Enin, the 17-year-old high school senior who made headlines last month because he got accepted to eight Ivy League schools, including Harvard.

He says he couldn’t have done it without his hovering parents.

“They were helicopter parents. They monitored everything. They said: ‘You have a mind, and you can do it. Always do your best,’ ” he told the New York Post.

So what have we learned?

That if you must put the “mother” in smother, make sure you know where it’s leading: Will you be able to stop hovering when your child leaves for Harvard?

Or as Swoosie Kurtz says in Bubble Boy: “. . . and the prince climbed up Rapunzel’s hair to the top of the tower and said, ‘Come with me, and we’ll live happily ever after.’ Then Rapunzel left her plastic bubble and died. The end.”

(Carol Robidoux is a freelance writer and lives in Manchester.)

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