There has been a multitude of articles flooding the internet concerning overprotective parenting. Although they differ as to what makes a person overprotective, they all agree the line has been crossed, and they all seem to agree on the solution.
I agree that parenting styles have certainly changed in the last several decades. Not long ago, it was common for a young child to walk to school alone or to ride a bike helmet-less over rough, gravel roads. If a child did not work diligently in school, no one scrupled over holding him back. Children were allowed risk and they were allowed to fail. Anthony Esolen, cultural writer, tells how, in his own childhood, kids did chores Saturday morning and then went off to play freely about the neighborhood until dinner. They played unorganized sports in the street, making and changing rules as needed, solving their own social dilemmas. Children now spend their weekends being shuffled from one scheduled event to another and then placed in front of a screen. I personally remember walking to the corner store at the age of six, list in hand. This was perfectly acceptable in the seventies, but I’m fairly confident I would have CPS at my door within the hour if I did this with my own six-year-old now.
So, a lot has changed in parenting, and many are beginning to believe the changes are for the worse. When parents hover over kids, finishing their tasks, kids do not learn independence. When parents consistently protect their children from failure, their kids began to have such a fear of this horrible thing called “failure”, they become afraid to try. Kids who spend all their free time in sports, structured and supervised by adults, learn the habit of letting others solve their problems for them. Children, who are kept in a safety bubble, forget how to be carefully aware of their surroundings. Helicopter parenting can stunt a child’s maturation.
I agree that overprotective parenting is a problem, but I do not agree at all with the general solution most people offer. In fact, I believe the solution being given is the cause of the original problem and that parenting beliefs have come full circle. Parenting philosophies swing back and forth like a pendulum, each extreme reacting to the other. Helicopter parenting is not just a simple matter of parents needing to loosen up; it is a reaction. For over a hundred years, parenting has swung back and forth between being very “hands off” to very controlling. The over scheduled sports of the 80’s and 90’s were a reaction against the “free-range” parenting of the 60’s and 70’s. I still remember the politicians of the 1980’s promising structured after school programs to keep idle kids out of trouble. Now they have too much structure. We had this same back and forth swing during the first part of the century. Although this has been going on for some time, it is a very modern phenomena, one that grows straight out the Constructivist learning theory.
In order to understand the pendulum swing, a person must know the basic story that has unfolded in the area of educational philosophy. Constructivism, as a formal theory is fairly new, but the ideas the led to it have been around much longer. For centuries these Constructive-like ideas and Christian thought have grown side by side.
Christians believe children are image bearers of God who have inherited sinful inclinations from Adam and Eve. Because they are image bearer, they are to be treated with respect. As sinners, they must sometimes be trained against their natural inclinations. The parents’ job is help bring the child in conformity to the image of God so that he can become what he was created to be. Parents pass on objective standards of truth, beauty, and goodness in such a way that the children will grow to want to pass them on to their own children and to those around them. If the child does not reach the objective standards found in the Bible, the child is the one that must change, or repent, not the standard. For Christians, children are not tainted by society, they are tempted by society. It is the taintedness in their heart that causes them to react in a wrong way. So, a Christian parent does set up a sort of mini-culture temporarily for a child, but not to protect the child from becoming evil, rather to strengthen the child first to overcome evil.
Constructivism exists in a Naturalistic, Godless world. Children are not Image bearers, but animals whose lineage has evolved through much struggle. These animal children are naturally good or neutral, Noble Savages. They only become wicked if they are tainted by society. It is the parents’ job to facilitate an environment, where the children can construct morality and knowledge on their own away from the negative influences of the larger culture. Sometimes the environment they set up is very loose, like in the 1960s and 70s, where children can run around freely. When that doesn’t work as planned, and it doesn’t, parents begin facilitating a more structured atmosphere. When that fails, they return to the Noble Savage model….and back and forth they go. When the child does not construct good morals or accurate knowledge, when he does not reach the standard, the problem is with the subjective standard and not the child.
Notice, though, how both the “free range” kid model of the sixties and the structured sports model of the eighties and nineties are really all based on the same premise. The way to rear a child is to set up the correct environment. The child is morally neutral, a blank slate. If there is a problem with how the children are turning out, we simply adjust their surrounding influences.
I gave examples above concerning how hyper-scheduling can poorly affect children. “Free Range” parenting can have its negatives as well. In an article in the “Atlantic”, the author tells of several children she observed starting a fire to warm themselves. One child began to throw a glossy piece of cardboard in, but was warned by the group not to do so because it would smoke. He tossed it in regardless, and was met with a tirade of complaints. Embarrassed, he now knew not to put glossy cardboard in the fire. The author is trying to show her audience how children can construct their own morality and learn logical consequences through their peers without adult supervisors coercing them with unwanted rules.
I have worked in schools which follow this philosophy. Since morality is a social construct, the strongest children tend to set the law. They may be the strongest physically, or the strongest verbally, controlling the thinking of the group. Bullying becomes a problem and a need for helicopter parenting arises.
Neither of these models works because they are founded on a false premise, namely that children are morally neutral beings in a naturalistic world. There is a third option though, discipleship. There is no dichotomy between structure and freedom in the Christian paradigm because the whole point of the structure is to bring freedom. Christian parents believe in training their child’s heart while they are young, through structure, yes, but mostly through relationship. They spend a generous amount of time training children in the rules, not just to know them, but to love them, because the rules are really all about love and are lovely, for they point to Love Himself. Christian children are discipled to see the sin in their heart for what it is, unpleasant and undesirable, and are taught to look to their Creator for help. Along with this, they are trained in self-government, to have the ability to do these things they have learned to love, even when it is against their natural inclination. The structure, God’s law applied to life, gives freedom, freedom from the sin in each of our hearts that causes war, hatred and abuse. It gives liberty not by changing the environment, but by changing the child into what he was originally created to be, a divine image bearer.
A funny thing happens with this type of careful instruction. A child soon learns to run around freely, not because he hasn’t been tainted by society, but because his tainted-ness has been washed by Christ’s blood. He has been encultured to love the things that keep a society free. He no longer needs the helicopter parent, or the helicopter state for that matter. God’s law, through the power of the Holy Spirit has made him free in a way no man-made construct can do. Constructivism cannot solve the problem of evil. Human constructs cannot substitute for the Messiah by manipulating the environment so the kids turn out “good”. It is by His stripes we are healed. It is by picking up our cross, following Him and teaching our children to do the same, that a culture is healed. This is the real answer to the helicopter parenting dilemma. In daily life, this may sometimes look like helicopter parenting and sometimes look like Noble Savage parenting. While the child is young, he will be quite restricted, but as reaches the teen years, he will realize more and more freedom as he lives out God’s love laws on his own. He will truly have become noble.