Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Protective Mother's Manifesto

My children are terrible back-seat drivers.

"Care-fu-wee!" Pie will call out as the car rumbles over a set of train tracks. I wonder whether she envisions the car losing its footing on such treacherous ground, all of us holding on for dear life as it stumbles down and skins its knee.

"That was a close one!" Bub exclaims every time I turn left in the path of an oncoming car.

I always feel a little thrill of pride when he says it.

My children are no daredevils. They’re the ones who sit at the top of the slide, contemplating the downward slope in their still, unhurried way while the line-up of impatient bystanders squirms in frustration behind them. Neither has ever climbed out of a crib or defeated a child-safety mechanism. Though prone to running away on the beach or at the mall, they are both cautious in the face of physical dangers – a trait I’ve always met with gratitude and recognition.

Before now-husband and I began dating, during that prolonged courtship of being "just friends," we once went tubing with a group of friends. Not white-water tubing, but the snowy kind – we climbed up the hill and piled into a big rubber inner tube, large enough to hold three or four adults at a time, then spun down the hill shrieking like six-year-olds, mittened fingers clinging to the hand-holds. As we lined up for hot chocolate, he turned to me in his shy, off-hand way and said, "I’ve been trying to figure you out. Do you think of yourself as an adventurous person?"

I pretended to consider this for a moment. The honest reply – "I’m probably the least adventurous person you’ve ever met" – was clearly out of the question. "I’m emotionally adventurous," I said at last. "I seem to lack ordinary caution when it comes to emotional risk-taking."

That is true as far as it goes – but it was also a convenient way not to talk about how I took diving lessons in grade six, stepping up to the board every morning, envisioning myself doing a perfect tuck or jack-knife, only to repeat the same clumsy manoeuvre time after time – a kind of modified front dive, with no upward movement – basically, I fell into the water headfirst, as carefully as possible.

Physical courage is not my strong suit. I sometimes liken falling in love to diving off a cliff – I adore the sheer free-fall of it – but when it comes to literal cliffs and literal dives, I’m more comfortable with my feet planted on terra firma.

Mad’s recent post on courage, adrenaline, and adventure has got me thinking about how my own aversion to risk-taking has affected my parenting. I am, as Mrs. Chicky puts it, a "helicopter mother." At the playground, while the other parents are chatting on park benches, barely glancing up as their three-year-olds swing from the monkey bars, I’m the one clambering up plastic rock-walls in pursuit of my errant children, guarding them from all the sheer drops that have always made playgrounds seem like giant death traps to me. At the beach, while the other parents are sunning themselves on beach towels, I’m the one splashing around in my maternity bathing-suit like some ungainly whale, always within arm’s reach of my children, always seeing a potential undertow in the gentle waves lapping at the shore.

My children have lived their lives accompanied by a constant chorus of "Be careful!" "Hang on!" and "Stay on the sidewalk!" When I read posts about parenting fearlessly, or encouraging fearlessness in our children, my first reaction is always a blank stare. Fearlessness is just not on my radar. I parent with Gandalf constantly looking over my shoulder whispering urgently, "Keep it safe!"

I feel surprisingly little guilt about this. I’m not afraid to be the smothering mother renowned in children’s fiction. In children's adventure stories, parents are supposed to be the blocking figures. Like Peter Rabbit’s mother, they fasten their squirming children into confining jackets and administer prohibitions. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t leave the path. Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.


But for all that, mothers are an essential part of the adventure. If Mrs. Rabbit didn’t fasten Peter’s jacket just a little bit too tight, what motivation would he have to cast it off? And if she were not there to tuck him into bed at the end of the day with camomile tea, how would Peter muster the courage to face the dangers of the forbidden vegetable patch?

I’m not a mother bird, ready to push my children out of the nest. I hedge them round with rules and warnings, knowing that someday they may choose to defy them. And if (when?) they do, I’ll be waiting for them to come back, bedraggled and jacket-less, with a dose of tea and a warm bed waiting. Like Mrs. Rabbit, though, I’ll save some blackberries and milk for the good little bunnies who find adventure enough within the confines of the ordinary, who dwell, like me, in the complexities of the village rather than the simple oppositions of the wilderness.

35 comments:

Gwen said...

I AM the mother on the towel. Or at least I try to be. My husband is the one with the helicopter blades whirring above his head. Maybe it's good the kids have both kinds of parents.

Karen said...

Oh, I am so with you here - the only mother still going down the slide at the playground, consoling myself in a sad but snarky way that I'm so happy my hips still fit it's narrow-made-for-four year old contours. I have one very incautious child. I couldn't even bring myself to take him to the beach last summer. I was 100% confident that I'd lose him between the crowds and the waves and his tendency to run off. I hope to be a little braver this year with this slightly older, slightly more compliant version of Little Puppy. I will say between my husband and me, I am the less helicoptery. I am willing to let them try to climb a tree on their own and willing to let them sit on our porch while I go in for juice boxes, Matt won't leave them for a second. I love him for that.

Julie Pippert said...

I am either a happy middle or inconsistent. Take your pick.

I tell them in advance but then...let go. I must. My older is a little physically cautious but NOT once she has gotten used to something. The younger one is a total daredevil. We finally found one thing that gave her a moment's pause: the foam pit at gymnastics. However, she quickly got over it and plunged in with her usual reckless feckless fervor.

Plus both kids have an avid unceasing curiosity leading them astray, way astray.

So in places where we are used to the space? I'm on the bench or blanket and I have one eye and one ear on them all the time. I know the warning signs.

In new spaces? Listen to the whir of the rotors.

Lawyer Mama said...

Yes, yes, yes! (Nodding in agreement.) This is me too. But lately, with my overly cautious oldest, I find myself urging him to be a bit more daring. But with my youngest, who is completely fearless and terrifies me, I'm a helicopter. There has to be a happy medium somewhere!

slouching mom said...

I'm the helicopter mother who's trying so hard not to be. Who starts to say "Be careful!" but swallows it before it's all the way out. The children hear only, "Be!"

And that's what I'd like them to hear, anyway.

Christine said...

i guess I am mix leaning toward almost-helicopter. But i have seen families who are so extreme on either end of the spectrum that it backfires. Like the parent who NEVER watches the kids and seems astonished when strangers rescue them from oncoming traffic or something. Or, on the other end, the parents who have so convinced their kids that strangers WILL take them if mom or dad are out of sight for even a millisecond.

To repeat what others have said,
there must be happy medium somewhere. . .

Suz said...

Having twins has wrecked havoc with my inner helicoper mom as one heads one way and one heads the other. There's literally no way of hovering over them both.

I think that my lack of interest in physical adventure stems from my desire to be in control. I ski, somewhat reluctantly, but I would never consign myself to the slopes in an inner-tube, spinning down sideways with nothing available with which to guide my movement. To me, parenting has been all about finding that balance between my need for control and my knowledge that I shouldn't/can't have it all the time.

Mad Hatter said...

Smooch!

For me, there is a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on. Is my daughter cautious because I am her mother from a parenting standpoint or is she cautious because I am her mother from a genetic standpoint. I'll never know. What I do know is that so far I haven't really had to be the helicopter mother because Miss M prefers to stay planted firmly on ground. She's almost 2 and 1/2 and went down the slide (the small slide) by herself for the first time 2 days ago. Ususally I find myself encouraging her sense of adventure but I know that if she were an eentsy bit more adventuresome I would become the helicopter parent. I am ok with that in the same way that you are ok with that. I make a mean hot cocoa at the end of the day and I can give really good big hugs when they are demanded (which is a lot).

On another point. I noticed that you said you were emotionally adventuresome. A couple of commenters at my place made the point of saying that either they, themselves, or their children are intellectually adventuresome. This is true I imagine for Miss M--she has her own form of risk that fits easily with her personality. I still want to come out stauchly on the side of the Neville's of this world, though--the people who do not subscribe to any form of risk, physical, emotional, or intellectual. Because these people are worthy too.

kgirl said...

I think that I'm not a helicopter because I've replaced 'Be careful' with 'Pay attention!'

snort.

bubandpie said...

Mad - It's genetics, baby. Genetics all the way.

Suz - Having my two so close together has had something of the same effect. At playgrounds, I've made the mental decision to let Bub go - I follow the Pie up and down, checking regularly for visual contact, but it's up to him now not to jump off of the top of the slide.

Beck said...

Like Mad just said - I'm not sure whether my own cautiousness has caused my older kids to be cautious because of a lifetime of hearing me shriek "BE CAREFUL!" or if hearing me shriek that just affirmed their own, genetically-programmeda inner monologue. I am the fearful mother out of all of my friends and yet my own mother, The Queen Of Fear, thinks that I am foolhearty to a terrifying extent, which amuses me.

kittenpie said...

I am completely cautious myself, too. Always was. I've never received a stitch that wasn't planned or broken a bone.

With Pumpkinpie, I fall somewhere in between. I've learned that children are more able than we are or think they are. Yet I see the danger and show her how to avoid it, how to climb the ladder safely, that sort of thing. I wander the playground with her so she has me to talk to, but let her navigate it once I know she's got it. Somewhere in the middle, but I don't know if it gets easier to let go or harder. And I'm trying to figure out when to start the talks about the larger dangers.

nomotherearth said...

We'd have a fabulous playdate in the park, I think. I'm forever amazed that parents will let their 18mth old go down the Big Kid Slide. I can only relax in the sandbox. I'm always climbing the steps and going down the slide with the Boy. Hey, at least it's exercise.

metro mama said...

I'm that gal chatting on the bench while Cakes tackles the tall slide.

Having rebelled spectacularly against an overprotective mother, I'm OK with that.

Stacie said...

Wow. This post is amazing. I wish I had something thoughtful and intelligent to say, but I don't. Just...wow.

Piece of Work said...

I do think our own comfort level with the physical plays deeply into how careful we caution our children to me. I am confident in my children's ability to maneuver the playground without trouble, because I was able to. I have always been coordinated, and I expect the same (subconciously) from my kids. IN fact, I end up encouraging my daughter, who walked late and seems a bit intimidated by many physical challenges, because I want her to feel more comfortable with the running and jumping and falling.

Catherine said...

We were so switched at birth, you and I. Except, I not only sat at the top of the slide whilst other children whined for their turn, but I eventually made then crawl down backwards so I could get down. And, yes, I did the same thing at the diving board.

Ah well. Emotionally adventerous. Yes, that's better.

natalie said...

I've never been much of a Louisa Musgrove either. Caution is an underrated virtue these days.

cinnamon gurl said...

Two things made me swell with pride, reading this post:

I am an emotional risk-taker!

And

I dwell in the complexities of the village rather than the simple oppositions of the wilderness! (I've always felt kind of bad that I don't really like camping...)

Jenn said...

"Don't run down the stairs"! I scream from my helicopter on a daily basis.

After I'm done shaking off the towel.

Angela said...

With my daughter, she was always fairly cautious and careful, so I didn't have to hover, she rarely did dangerous things. However, with my son I'm much more observant, he loves to climb and jump from high spots. So I should just have a tape recorder with "be careful" playing over and over again when I'm at the playground with him.

I'm physically very cautious, that's why I'm still not a very good downhill skier and both my kids just whiz past me on the slopes...but I keep trying!

Pieces said...

I fell off my fair share of diving boards too. Water hurts!

Leigh said...

I'm also a helicopter mom. I drive my husband crazy. He mentioned recently going to the beach, and the look in my eyes when I invisioned trying to keep our four children from being carried out to sea just about had him hysterical. I said that possibly we could go to the beach when they are all teenagers. Maybe.
He thinks I'm kidding.

Indigo Children said...

Me too, me too. I am a helicopter too. I must work on being less guilty about this becuase, let's face it. I ain't changin'.

bubandpie said...

Angela - It's true - the nature of the child really does factor into the equation. Bub is caution about dangers he recognizes, but he has very little awareness of his physical environment. I used to catch him regularly stepping backwards with the staircase right behind him - he simply doesn't remember that it's there.

painted maypole said...

I had a car accident a few months ago, with my daughter in the backseat. Fortunately it was a small fender-bender, and we were both safely strapped in. But it has changed the tenor of our conversations in the car. She is always wanting me to look at something or to tell me something, or to hand her something. And now, when i tell her "Not now, I'm driving" she says "We learned that lesson, didn't we?" yes, we did.

I am a cross between the helicopter parent and the bench warming parent. I do a bit of both. it depends how high the monkey bars are. And... if my daughter is screeching for me to come play with her. Sometimes, that playing with her allows me to help keep her safe, without looking like I'm hovering.

Anonymous said...

My favorite back seat driver story is my two year old niece being driven by her father and muttering from the car seat: "Jeez-us Chwist you cwazy dwiver". Instantly cleaned up my brother-in-law's language!

Heather said...

I am totally with you too. My girl is quite adventurous at times--trying to do things that big kids do when her legs are about half the size.

A dear friend of mine keeps talking about how if you don't expect kids to get hurt they will and if you expect them to follow you they will (she's read many interesting books on parenting in other cultures).
I just don't get it. I can see it with her child, just not mine. She has never voluntarily followed me unless she is absolutely terrified. Otherwise she just goes her own way.

Mad Hatter said...

btw, I don't sit on the towel b/c Miss M would sit on the towel on my lap. I am on the slide b/c it is the only way to convince her that the slide is the fun place to be.

ewe are here said...

I'm always torn about how far I should let our little adrenaline junkie go when we're out and about. He's a climber, runner, jumper, spinner, scrambler... and has lots of bruises to prove it. On the one hand, I don't want him to get seriously hurt and to respect the fact that he can indeed get hurt. Or lost if he runs off. But, on the other hand, becoming independent and testing his own physical abilities are something I want to encourage because I, too, was an adrenaline junkie when I was young, and to contain me would have meant sheer misery on my part. I needed to run and jump and climb... and I see that he does, too. So I find myself just trying to be close enougn if it looks like he's about to get in over his head.

I think my husband's quite relieved I do let MF do these things... he was afraid I'd let my fears for his safety override his need to explore.

Anyway, now I'm kind of holding my breath about what his little brother is going to be like when he gets moving.

Susanne said...

I'm not an adventorous person too. And I grew up with "helicopter parents". But I try to refrain from it. Though a part of me is screaming "Be careful!" in my head I choose to trust my son's judgement. He is careful but competent. I always fear that it is the unwanted advice that would make him unsafe. That he - like I did - would be concentrating on my commentary so much that he were not focusing on the physical task at hand.

whymommy said...

I'm on the slide too . . . but I'm headed down . . . and fast!

The kids will learn. They'll test their limits, but they'll learn.

Juris Mommy said...

I helicopeter. I do. I admit it. I am not ashamed.

This weekend my boys were taking a nap in the room they share. The oldest yelled to me, "Mommy, Steve isn't putting safety first!"

I was so proud.

edj said...

I am physically timid and my mother could've taught lessons on flying a helicopter, so I've always blamed it on her. Without her limitation, I thought, I could've been like the kids I envied, diving off the high board with wild abandon (I couldn't even dive off the side of the pool!), or not screaming in fear as a fast-thrown softball approached my face.
As a parent, I made a conscious choice to be different--to not assume the worst, to hold my imagination at bay, to not coddle and smother. I figure, given my own physical timidity and morbid imagination, I won't go too far in the other direction. So far it's working; I hang out on the towel, glancing up every so often to count heads.

c4cara said...

I AM the helicopter Mum. Now they are older, it's more like 'whiplash mum' because while we mums are all standing about chatting in a group, and making appropriate eye contact. I'm whipping my head around watching all our kids in case one of them gets in trouble. My husband is the laid back one. I envy him on the days my neck starts to hurt.