Seattle helicopter mom  pjt1zw

Image: Adam Hancher

The internet offers numerous helpful tips on how to stop yourself from bursting into tears, and I’ve been searching. My daughter graduates high school this month. 

And leaves for good in the fall. And though “for good” in the context of a kid going to college has come to mean “until they graduate and move back into your basement,” what I’m feeling, I realize, is loss. 

So is Barack Obama, whose eldest, Malia, is graduating too. He keeps telling interviewers that he can’t talk about it or he’ll cry. To Ellen he called Malia “one of my best friends.” 

“OMG, what a helicopter,” sneered one of my best friends. 

I had to sit down. 

She was referring to helicopter parenting, that phenomenon in which parents impede their children’s development by hovering. If every generation has its parenting divide—to breast-feed or not to breast-feed was my mom’s, to work outside the home or parent inside it was my sister’s—my generation’s is about the line separating appropriate parental support from inappropriate parental control. It’s the root of myriad cultural arguments, over attachment parenting and tiger mothers, in books about enlightened French child-rearing and American college-admissions mongering.

This was inevitable, as the trend has been fed by both working moms (whose need for scheduling brought the “playdate” to their kids) and at-home moms (tempted to measure their worth by their children’s accomplishments). Overparenting is the shame of my generation.

This is where I’m troubled. Because there are helicopters, and then there are 10-rotor electric drones with extended range and retractable arms. Yes I have followed the school bus. Yes I have background-checked a boyfriend. And though my daughter’s and my relationship rests on a foundation of mutual respect, with a mile-wide streak of levity, my nagging her about schoolwork and sleep has come to form its mellifluous background music. Terrific movie, damn annoying score.

Have I gone too far? 

The books overwhelm you with examples: of parents who engage in “academic doping,” who pester coaches to play their kid, who build the science fair projects themselves. Nope, nope, and (laughing) really nope. It helps that my child has killer wits; I’m pretty sure this kid could survive a zombie apocalypse with some cedar bark and a nettle branch. For her, on a great many practical matters—I got nothin’. 

Well…except for experience. And that’s something I keep thinking about as I read books like How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. She suggests parents not referee when kids are having trouble sharing, to let them work it out on their own. Hmmm. Not sure any child I’ve ever met would arrive spontaneously at selflessness without a teaching moment. 

Supplying that moral narrative is something I fear we’re tossing out in our fever to avoid overparenting. Yes, it can look like nagging—as when I insist she write a thank-you note, explaining moral necessity, and the social contract, and the value of sincerity…and did you write that thank-you note yet? In the name of it taking a village, I’ll admit I’ve told the feral kid at the playground that waving a stick while running might hurt someone—and gotten the stink eye from his rotors-down mom. By the new calculus, this is too much parenting.

At the risk of sounding like we had a plan, my husband and I have roughly parented toward two ends: that our daughter find community, and that she find something she can take pride in. Neither benefits from a hands-off approach. Before she was old enough to do so herself, we signed her up for classes and surrounded her with people—which for us meant volunteering at co-op preschool, and engineering playdates, and vacationing at family camp, and making room every day in the family schedule for a half hour of screeching music practice. And more stuff that we didn’t necessarily yearn to do—including, sometimes, playing referee.

Hovering? I guess I’d call it parenting. 

In my experience, parenting isn’t about labels. I’ve been both an at-home and an at-work mom—and found devoted parents in both realms. Contrary to what the cultural debates would have us believe, parenting isn’t a resume point or an ego trip or a philosophy any more than a kid is a personal accessory or a brand strategy or a mirror. Parenting is a relationship. And when Julie Lythcott-Haims tells me I’m hovering if I go to every single one of my kid’s soccer games—well, I guess I have to proudly own that as what love just looks like in my house.

We’re sitting on her bed going over her college packing list, when a memory from Seattle treasure Julie Metzger pops into my head. She’s the nurse who for nearly three decades has delivered Seattle Children’s Hospital’s puberty lectures for girls and their mothers. At one such lecture she told a bunch of moms what our job was when our teenage kid—gangly and awkward, pimply and greasy haired, radiating attitude—walked in the door. “At that moment you’ve got one job as a parent,” Metzger declared. “To have your eyes light up.” 

That’s it. Only now I just wish she’d said what to do when they walk out.

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