Friday, August 21, 2015

Helicopter parents and latchkey kids


Isabel back when I started this blog.
Over the past few weeks, people kept asking me how I felt about Isabel going to college and I would smile vaguely and say, “Sad, but she’s really ready to go.” 

The truth was I didn’t know how I felt.

On Wednesday, I went up to say good morning and see if she was all packed to leave for the airport and when I saw her there in her childhood bed, suddenly I knew exactly how I felt because I burst into tears. Her suitcases were lined up in the cozy room where she’d played in her dollhouse, read Beverly Cleary, had sleepovers, learned her times tables, sewed costumes, written college applications, dressed for the prom. . . 

Oh, it was so sad for me! I was abruptly and totally heartbroken. Eighteen-and-a-half years of cohabitation with this calm, thoughtful, lovely girl were over. I drove her to the airport and said a tearful goodbye. I would like to say I wept off and on for the rest of the day, but that’s a far too graceful term for what I did. I sobbed off and on for the rest of the day.

Do you know what was pathetic? Not the sobbing. What was pathetic was that I felt kind of ashamed of being so sad. I was especially ashamed of wanting to text her and see how she was doing that night. Ashamed of wanting to text her and tell her how much I missed her. Like, get a grip, Mom. At the back of my mind were two hideous little words that had never before made an appearance there: helicopter parent

I never liked that term, but I didn’t realize how much I loathed it until for a few fleeting moments I worried it might apply to me. What a contemptuous label to smack on someone whose attention to their child doesn’t fit your idea of what's appropriate.

Helicopter parents are the worst. They hover. They wring their hands. They noisily micromanage. The poor children of helicopter parents are (supposedly) flailing out in the real world because, among other things, their moms text them too much. Seriously. I've read this criticism of parents who text their college-age kids in about a half dozen different places. Eventually, it gets under your skin.

Meanwhile, the cool parents are raising independent “free-range kids," a term that brings to mind happy, organic chickens in a meadow with some buffalo under a big, blue, helicopter-less sky. Unsupervised, these kids learn to make their own decisions. They're taking the subway on their own. They're learning how to handle adversity. They're not being driven to soccer and ballet, they're playing stickball or roaming the woods. They're thriving. They probably don't even have cell phones.

When I was growing up, one of the snidest things you could say of a mother was that she was raising a “latchkey kid.” These pitiful creatures were on their own every afternoon while their parents were at work and this was considered a big problem. Unsupervised, they were forced to make their own decisions. They were taking the subway on their own. They were learning how to handle adversity. They weren't being driven to soccer and ballet, they were .  . . . well, back then it was assumed they were having sex and doing drugs. 

If you think about it, a free-range kid is really no different from a latchkey kid except, I guess, there's someone home to let the free-range kid in when she's done free ranging. Whatever that even means.

Parents are always supposedly screwing it up royally, one way or another. You can't win. And yet generation after generation, most kids have this way of growing up ok. All these labels and theories seem completely bogus to me at this point in my life, and yet there I was, hesitant about texting my own daughter.

Anyway. Wednesday was tragic. Thursday was better. Friday, I'm fine. I texted Isabel twice today, shamelessly.

***

I made these crunchy, chocolatey, peanutty bars and they are great but I’m not sure they're worth the trouble of tracking down the feuilletine and cocoa butter. If you have those two ingredients on hand, by all means go for it. 

I also made Laurie Colwin’s nutmeg cake for Isabel’s farewell dinner. It was her choice and a very good one. I hadn’t baked this cake in a few years and had forgotten how sticky, spicy, and delicious it is. I make it in a 9-inch pan and omit the cloves. 

38 comments:

  1. Jennifer, this post just made me cry for you and Isabelle and then for me and my (10 year old daughter) and then for Laurie's daughter and for her cake.

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  2. Whoops- Isabel (I have a niece named Isabelle)

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  3. I think of latchkey kids as kids who are really too young and immature to be on their own alone. I think of Helicopter parents as parents who want to make decisions for their kids so they won't make any mistakes so they hover around their kids not letting them grow up and make decisions or mistakes. The helicopter parent also has a hard time not having a say in their grown up child's life but they keep trying to butt in even when it's not needed or wanted anymore.
    Of course parents are sad when their kids move out, that would be a normal reaction. Missing your grown up child is not being a helicopter parent, it's called love.

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  4. Time to watch Gilmore Girls reruns. Having gone through 7 departures, I have to say my oldest daughter was the worst. She was my reading buddy, and the one I commiserated with about the younger kids. Now she is he mom of three ADORABLE grandkids. And an amazing social worker. So sob, away. Good times ahead

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  5. Actually, I am Kathy Beirne, don't know why it came up Steve!

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  6. I was OK when first left to go to college, but when my last one left and I came home to no children at ALL, ,,sad only kinda describes that feeling. I realized it time for me to readjust my life. And I did, but it took a while. It all worked out fine, no major trauma, although the pictures I thought I would finally organize and the junk room I thought I would make into an office, well the pictures are still in the boxes and the junk room is even more crowded, 3 years after my youngest graduated from college!

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  7. I was really fine when Son #1 headed off to college last fall. However, the prospect of Son #2 leaving a year from now has brought on the anxiety dreams. There's just no telling.

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  8. I have a son in 12th grade, as well as a "spare" with some high school tread still on his tires, and I already cannot bear to read this post. I think I'll be a soggy, swollen-eyed mess for quite a while when he goes. When the second goes as well, they'll have to scrape me, and my rotors, off the floor.

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  9. Since the commenters have looked at this from the parent's perspective, let me give you what I believe is an accurate view from the child's, no matter what age. There is nothing more comforting and empowering than having a loving parent remind you that s/he is there for you, especially when you are trying out your independence. Whether Isabel acknowledges it or not, I am sure she appreciates the fact that you are still there for her. It makes her more confident and supports her ability to make her own decisions. From reading your blog for a long time, I could never imagine you being a helicopter parent! Cry away, it's a life-changing event for everyone involved. How are Mark and Owen reacting? Like stoic males?

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  10. Trust me, texting your kid while she is away at college does not make you a "helicopter parent." Helicopter parents install GPS tracking apps on their kids' phones (no joke, they exist) so they can know their whereabouts at all times. They call their kids' professors to complain about grades, workloads, etc. They interfere to the point that they don't allow their children any independence and don't allow them to ever make mistakes. From what I can tell, you are far from it! It is a sad time and, whether she expresses it or not, Isabelle is probably just as sad as you are in her own way. I know I was when I left for college!

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    Replies
    1. Agreed. Helicopter parents also accompany their children to college and sometimes stay for several weeks. Many schools now have a Parents' Orientation that includes a closing event called "Time to Say Goodbye Now."

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  11. I think Maggie's distinction between texting your college kid and texting her professors to complain is key.

    Also, my boyfriend has 2 daughters in their 20s, and the 3 of them have a group text going constantly. And he is not the one who initiated it! Of course he loves it (and occasionally when he doesn't hear from one, he will mope and say she doesn't love him anymore, which is, of course, untrue), but it seems like it is something all three of them depend on since they are living in different states.

    I hope her first weeks--and yours!--go well.

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  12. Over the years (!) as I've been reading your blog and virtually watching you raise your children, you have been and continue to be an inspiration to me precisely because you give your children both guidance and space. Now you're launching Isabel, and she's going to be successful because you and Mark have given her such a wonderful preparation to become an independent adult. That's a really difficult thing to do, though, and I say that as someone who cries on the first day of school every, single, stinking year. And that's just 4th grade! I will be a wreck when college rolls around.

    Good luck and good wishes to all of you.

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  13. This was sweet and poignant, and reminded me of how soon I'll be in your shoes. I welcome the good times ahead, but I do feel wistful at the good times that are gone. We're in a golden age right now, and I wish time could slow down a little.

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  14. Katherine made it very easy for me to not be sad--she flew into a rage at me just as I was saying goodbye and heading to the airport to return home--after accompanying her to Annapolis, putting us up in a historic hotel, and taking her (and her boyfriend) to dinner at the Inn at Little Washington ($500!)

    Emily was a peach. She cried when I left her in New York. She still complains that I didn't call her nearly enough over her four years in college (I texted her all the time.)

    Kath was fiercely claiming her independence, whereas Em needed some tethering to her family. You'll know what Isabel needs and wants. When in doubt, text! She can always ignore you!

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  15. Well Tipsy not gonna lie it was rough with an only child gone from my nest. I really never new the correct parenting protocol and just annoyed him until he would tell me to stop. ha. He is now a well adjusted, Master's achieving, career in place adult. Whew. That said, you are not one of those helicopter parents. I know of parents who moved to their child's college town. And drove to their college age child to school and back. Not kidding. Gold standard really.

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  16. You're not a helicopter parent.

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