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Fitness and family health

April 22, 2013

Are you a helicopter parent?

Do you find yourself hovering at the bottom of the slide in the playground, hoping your little one won’t skin a knee? You’re in good company.

Eric Ritskes knows he’s got “helicopter parent” tendencies when it comes to his daughter. “I tend to jump at the drop of a hat when she needs something,” says the Toronto-based researcher.

Ritskes says Daija, who turns three next month, has recently begun reminding him that she can do things on her own. “I still feel the need to be close by,” he says, “but I try and do it from a discreet distance now so it doesn't look like I'm hovering.”

Ritskes belongs to a whole generation of helicopter parents — the very devoted yet safety-obsessed who want to eliminate as much risk as possible from their children’s lives. In trying to provide their children with safe, pain-free, enriched childhoods, they manage every aspect of their kids’ schedules, from getting to know the grade one teacher intimately (so their child will get ahead) to cleaning grocery store shopping carts with antiseptic wipes to protect their toddler from germs.

So what has caused the rise of the helicopter parent? Experts attribute it a multitude of factors — from a reaction to the latch-key parenting of the ’70s and ’80s to the constant media stories of sexual predators, abductions and worse.

Two in five parents (39%) interviewed in an international online play report, prepared by Family Kids and Youth and sponsored by IKEA in 2009, agree with the statement that “I would like my children to be able to play outside but I am too worried about their safety,” with 58% of Canadian parents surveyed reporting they feel “slightly/strongly” about this.

In addition to fear, over the past 25 years, other factors have come into play, says Nicole Wise, co-author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.

“Kids who may have felt unparented may become over-parenters when they have their own children. Parenting magazines proliferate ... and women have put off having children until they were a bit older and more educated — and then approached parenting like it was a job that they wanted to do really, really well.”

But the effect of all this overzealous parenting has backfired, says Wise, reducing the amount of time kids spend playing on their own. “Ultimately a child whose parents are always hovering, evaluating, directing and appraising will get the message that he or she can't do anything on their own. They become insecure about their abilities or overly-confident, anxious or entitled and sometimes angry,” says Wise.

Concerned you may be becoming a helicopter parent? Here are some signs you may need to step back a bit:

  • You find you’re doing everything for your child: feeding a four-year-old or tying older children’s shoes.
  • You’re overly focused on your children’s achievements and enrol them in numerous programs such as gymnastics for toddlers that you believe will help them get ahead but that may not be age-appropriate.
  • You’re upset when your child fails at something and consider it a personal failure.
  • Your child shows signs of dependence, clinginess, anxiety or anger.
  • You and your child have no free time to just play and enjoy each other's company.

The good news is that curbing helicopter tendencies isn’t hard. “The first step is to assess your family life,” says Wise. “Parents do well to ask themselves, ‘Does this really matter? Is this really important?’ To evaluate whether their household is a little too stressed, they need to consider, “Is the schedule too busy? Are the children feeling too much pressure? Has life become all about do-do-do, go-go-go?’”

By all means, experts say to enrol your kids in activities that are age-appropriate and genuinely interest them. After all, exposure to sports, arts and the outdoors is beneficial. Just ensure programs don’t become vehicles for too much parental coaching.

Wise suggests parents make a conscious effort to allow their kids to just be kids — with more time for free play, reading books, just doing nothing. Moms and dads should also reclaim their own lives — social, professional and romantic.

“Successful parenting means raising kids who will be themselves and who ultimately won't need us anymore,” says Wise. “That's our job — not creating the perfect child and the perfect childhood.”

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