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July 29, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve written a fair amount about “free range kids” and “helicopter parents.” But for the most part, I did so to focus on the interface between the family and the state in the form of child welfare agencies. Put simply, CPS agencies all across the country have often escaped the confines of their mission statements and begun to substitute their own ideas about parenting for those of parents.

So if a parent lets her kid play at the park a block from her house, someone is sure to report the matter to the police who are sure to contact CPS who are sure to make life difficult for the parents and the child, despite the fact that the child was in no way harmed or in danger of harm. The list of those cases is far too long to reprise, but the Meitiv family in Maryland and Kerri Ann Roy in Texas come immediately to mind.

In both those cases, CPS and the police were far more abusive toward the children than were the parents. The Meitiv kids were held by the police for five hours until late at night with no opportunity to speak to their parents who were frantic with worry, since the police also waited hours to inform them where their children were. Roy’s son was interviewed by CPS who asked him about things of which he’d never heard before — like child sexual abuse. Roy reports that he was quite upset about that interview and now wonders about harm to himself. Nice.

The point being that child welfare agencies, by concluding that the most benign parenting behavior is in some way abusive or neglectful, frankly encourages helicopter parenting. If there’s not a parent in the immediate vicinity, ever vigilant for the slightest possible danger, CPS is likely to consider it child neglect. So the logical thing for parents to do is to never be out of sight of their kids, regardless of how safe they are. After all, who wants CPS caseworkers nosing around their house and affairs, talking to neighbors, teachers, doctors, etc.?

In short, in the election between free-range parents and the hovering variety, CPS has already voted.

Now it turns out that parents who are ever-present in their kids’ lives may actually be harming them. To the extent CPS demands that type of parenting, it too may be harming kids, and not just when they’re children. Adults who were raised by helicopter parents have been reporting the adverse effects of same for years now. Here’s one article (New York Times, 7/27/15).

When Julie Scelfo set out to report Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection, she expected to learn that today’s college students faced new and different stresses than their forebears. Instead, she found pieces of a familiar story.

“When I was reporting How to Say No to Your Kids: Settling Limits in an Age of Excess, (a Newsweek cover story she co-wrote in 2004), we found that psychologists were noticing an influx of adult patients who had experienced childhood ‘overindulgence,’ ” she said. “And because these kids had never had a chance to experience failure and figure out how to recover, they turned into adults who lacked resiliency, felt anxious and weren’t able to manage basic work and relationship responsibilities.”

As one who was allowed to stray far, far from home on a daily basis, with only my brothers or friends for “protection,” I can say from experience that growing up that way was a more or less constant stream of experiment and failure, experiment and success. Every day was a learning experience because we were always trying new things and finding out what worked and what didn’t. A balsa wood toy airplane could be converted perfectly well into a propeller-powered boat, for example.

Helicopter parents not only take away the creativity that all kids have, but they take away the experience of failure that everyone needs in order to learn how to bounce back and be better, smarter, stronger next time. That’s a disservice to kids, and, as the article points out, to the adults they become. But there’s more.

What really struck her, though, as she read a report issued by a University of Pennsylvania task force on mental health in the midst of a cluster of student suicides, was that so many students were not only suffering from those same old stressors, but were also unable to ask for help. “Why is it so hard for people to acknowledge when they’re suffering? Or said differently, why were kids continuing to hide their pain when help is readily available?”

Many students, she realized, had been pressured by their parents and their culture to define success in only a very narrow and specific way: not only do they need to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular and social endeavor, but that success must also appear effortless. Students must achieve, and look happy while they do it.

How much of that definition of success comes from a lifetime of parents pushing students forward and smoothing their way? Students who have learned that failure isn’t an option also don’t get the opportunity to learn that failure is surmountable, and haven’t had the opportunity to discover within themselves the resources to get back up and try again, or created a picture of their self-worth that isn’t reliant on outer success.

Remember, Scelfo isn’t talking about the inevitable upsets that come with a bad grade or a summer internship missed; she’s talking about suicide. She’s talking about deep mental/emotional stress and the lack of a sense of self beyond one’s overt achievements. What happens when the parent no longer hovers nearby, making everything alright, paving the way to an endless stream of successes, offering non-stop support? Apparently, the kids, now grown up, have few resources to keep themselves going, to accept that they are no longer mother’s little warriors, but just another person in the workaday world.

In that vein, this article reports that suicide among college students is three times what it was in the 1950s according to the American College Health Association and that suicide attempts have risen correspondingly (About Parenting).

Meanwhile, the NYT writer asks the obvious question:

Is it possible that we have met the enemy, and he is us?

You bet it is. But of course I’d add another — CPS. When a parent’s local child welfare authority has demonstrated that it can and will make life hell for parents and children alike when a kid is allowed to go to the park alone, play basketball in his own yard before his parents get home from work, walk home from school, etc., it’s no surprise that parents will do what they can to toe the line. It doesn’t take many stories in the news about children being taken from the home and parents like the Meitivs harassed unconscionably to deliver the message to everyone else. Best not let the kids out of your sight, not let them explore, discover, try, fail and try again. Everyone knows there’s a choice to be made — losing your children or keeping a constant watch on them. For many, the choice is obvious. It takes brave parents indeed to place themselves and their kids in CPS’s crosshairs.

We live in a culture that fears for its kids. It does so with little reason. Children are far safer now than they have been at any time in U.S. history that we know of. That culture leads people to report kids like the Meitivs’ to CPS. But apart from a too-nervous zeitgeist, we’ve abdicated far too much responsibility for children’s welfare to governmental agencies. Like most arms of the state, those agencies are all too happy to expand their power under the banner of protecting kids.

But time and again we learn that what CPS does far too often is inimical to children’s welfare. Enforcing helicopter parenting is just another in a long list of examples.

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