Are you a helicopter parent without realising it? How I discovered I was one and was screwing up my kids

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In the journey of understanding why I act the way I do now as an adult, I spent a while thinking about my childhood and how my parents influenced me. In that time, I also started wondering how I was screwing up my own kids. I mean, clearly we are all screwed up in some way by our parents, and thus are inevitably screwing up our kids too. It’s not some exclusive club. You can’t avoid being a member of it. But I’m just hoping to figure out while my kids are still young how I’m screwing them up…so I can stop doing it in hope of screwing them up a little less…and hopefully equip them with their own tools to be able to recognise when they’re older how I have screwed them up and be able to fix themselves.

The thing about screwing up your kids is that you often don’t realise what you’re doing is actually harming them. To you it may be a very loving action. For example, my parents kept offering to pay for everything for me. To them, they were loving me unconditionally and making sure I was always provided for. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Make no mistake I am so grateful to them for everything they’ve done for me; however, it has also meant I haven’t been able to become an adult and learn through hard work or develop true grit. It means that I am now in my thirties feeling like nothing I own is really mine, and am having to find my own feet in life at a much later stage than most people.

The moment that I started recognising that my style of parenting was screwing up my kids was when I finally lay down my pride and looked at what I was doing through my husband’s eyes (no easy feat for sure). We had a conversation and I listened to his concerns and opened up my mind to the view that he could actually be right here. Miss 5 is now at an age where we can see the results of our parenting and I know she’s always been very reserved and less willing to try new things compared to other kids, but I thought that was mostly down to personality and that what I did couldn’t have that big a change on her traits. I have always thought of myself as an attachment parenting mum…but as we talked, I suddenly realised that maybe I am not so much doing this attachment parenting thing as I am…*gasp* helicopter parenting.

I had never thought of myself as a helicopter parent as I always associated the term with the strict parent-led Asian style of parenting. I am someone who has always rebelled against the strict Asian standards imposed on myself when I was growing up so I have been conscious of not imposing the same kind of pressures on my kids and letting them lead the way in many things. I am definitely not standing over my child in school, telling the teachers what to do, forcing my kids into activities, fending for them at the playground etc…BUT…okay, I admit maybe I do coddle my kids from an emotional point of view. So could I really be helicopter parenting without realising it?

It’s tough being a parent. Sometimes I put my kids’ shoes on for them even though they can do it themselves because we just need to get out of the house in the morning and not be late to school. Sometimes I brush their teeth for them at night because they take too long to do it themselves and I just want them to go to bed. Sometimes I feed them instead of letting them feed themselves because I don’t want to clean up the mess that comes with letting kids self feed. I don’t want to make them try new foods and do the “eat dinner or you’ll starve” thing because I don’t want to deal with a hangry child at night when I’m exhausted from the day. I probably don’t challenge them enough or let them be as independent as they could be…because that requires more effort than I’m willing to put in at the moment. If you’re a parent of young kids, you’ll know it’s stressful enough just to make sure everyone is alive, fed, and bathed at the end of the day. Jeepers who wants to inconvenience themselves more than they need to?

As a mum, I seem to instinctively protect my kids when they show signs of being scared or upset. My husband is the one who challenges them and I am the one going “Do they really need to give that up? Do they really need to do so many chores to earn money for that? Do they have to talk to that person when they’re scared?” I have a maternal urge to just want to cuddle them and say “It’s okay! Mummy’s here!” I think “But they’re still so little” and “They will do things in their own time” and in Miss 2’s case, with her developmental delays, I think “She can’t understand this yet”…when really, they are already so capable of doing more than we give them credit for even at their young ages. So in that way…yeah I guess I am guilty of doing the helicopter parenting thing.

After a few years of being in this mum job, I have learned that it’s true that kids take pride in being independent. Sometimes Miss 5 can struggle to learn to do something for herself (she is a bit of a perfectionist so the journey to learning new things can be long and really frustrating) but once she gets there, I can see the immense pride and happiness she feels. There is a reason 2- and 3-year-old toddlers have so many meltdowns about wanting to do things for themselves- because they really do naturally have a drive to look after themselves and be in control. And if we have the patience to let them learn how to do things for themselves instead of telling them “You’re too little to do that, let me do it for you”, they can actually be pretty amazing at it.

I do admire (from afar) the Montessori method which allows kids to be independent and take control of their own environment and learning. I follow some Montessori mums on Instagram and it always amazes me what their kids can do when you give them that autonomy and adjust their environment to allow that. Toddlers can actually get themselves breakfast, get dressed, help with cooking, help with chores etc…all with no drama! (Well, toddlers that aren’t mine)

Of course, looking at someone else’s life and going “Wow that’s amazing I want to do all that too” and actually taking action to follow through with that are two very different things! It’s so hard to let go of the reins and let your kids do things for themselves and suffer the consequence of their own actions/choices, even now that I’m conscious of it and trying to change. Sometimes I just want things done fast. Sometimes I don’t want to go through the effort of modifying things around the house to be accessible to them (e.g. putting their clothes, cups, plates, toys etc somewhere low where they can get them themselves). Sometimes I also feel guilty for making them do everything themselves. I get a twinge of mum guilt that I’m somehow abandoning my mum duty when my kid asks me for something and I’m constantly responding “You can do/get that yourself”. I feel like I’m being lazy (not true I know) or loving them less by doing that and I don’t want them to feel I don’t love them. But now I realise by not allowing them to be more independent, I’m actually robbing them of the self-satisfaction of being in control of their own actions, and the lessons that are learned when they are challenged to learn something new. I now see that I have actually been holding them back in life due to my own selfishness of not wanting to be inconvenienced and perhaps to also feel that I am needed as a mum…and it’s really not easy saying that, especially when my only goal for the last few years has been providing everything I could for them.

Miss 5 started primary school last year (prep which is the foundation year of primary school; kinder here is at 3 and 4 years of age) and in her first year, I’ve seen her grow so much and become so much more confident. She’s suddenly doing things she has previously been scared of or refused to do. Things like climbing ropes and monkey bars at playgrounds, learning to ride a bike, reading and writing. She’s suddenly become so much more self-assured and confident in her own abilities, and has actually become quite self-motivated. It’s made me realise that although she may be naturally a little more introverted and quieter than most other kids, she is definitely capable of overcoming any challenge with some encouragement and guidance.

So it’s time to stop coddling and hovering. The goal this year is to try to hold myself back from over-parenting. To encourage my kids to do more things for themselves, experience new things, let them learn to make decisions and accept the consequences of those decisions, and just trust that they can handle their own emotions…oh, and to offer them more vegetables and new foods too. I admit I’m totally caught up in the trap of giving them the usual foods I know they’ll eat and not fight me on. It’ll be a daily challenge for sure. I know it will be emotionally hard for me. I know I will probably be inconsistent. But I guess as long as I am aware of it and keep trying, we’ll be moving forward.

Another area of parenting I’ve been working on is being more consistent with my husband. I think to begin with, I’ve always been aware of the importance of putting up a united front and generally we don’t contradict each other in front of the kids. However, I’ve come to a realisation that I did need to give him more input into parenting. In the past, when he wanted to make a change e.g. get the kids to sleep earlier at night, I would answer defensively “but you’re not the one doing the bedtime routine most nights”. I felt that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”! I didn’t have an issue with their bedtime and I didn’t want to rock the boat with changes I deemed unnecessary. However, after a while I realised that he’s still one half of the team, and I had to respect his input instead of making him feel like he was less of a parent or guilty for working hard day and night when he’s really doing that to give us a good life.

At the end of the day, my husband really is an extremely capable dad and his opinions are very valid…and that’s maybe why I secretly resent them sometimes- because I know they are true! The truth always hurts! He has always been the stricter, more practical, more logical, more challenging parent (somehow also managing at the same time to be a lot more fun than me). He is the one who pushes the kids to grow and change and reach new milestones and new heights. I do a good job at maintaining the baseline and keeping the kids alive. Maybe I push back at him sometimes because I feel annoyed at being pushed myself, what more with the kids. So now I am conscious to put aside my emotions and do what is practical and logical. I feel now that I’m communicating better and allowing him to have his equal say in how we raise our kids, we are working much better as a team at this parenting thing, and my kids are growing into better, more capable people as a result.

An example of the challenges of united parenting: We have been trying to cut down the amount of stuff we have in our house and lead more minimalist lifestyles, and my husband has been quite ruthless in culling the kids’ toys. To him, it’s like “Well, they don’t really need so much stuff. They can learn to live without it”…and, well, that is indeed true. A while back, Miss 5 was looking for a particular doll and when we realised my husband had probably donated it to charity, my instinctive reaction was a horrified “What? That was her very first doll! She loves Belle!” Then I stopped myself. The truth is although Miss 5 still occasionally played with Belle, it wasn’t that often. She has so many dolls and the reality is that she could just play with another one. In fact, I was probably more upset than she was because I was the one who bought the doll. But hey, the doll was already gone. No amount of expressed annoyance towards my husband was going to reverse that. Me showing that I was upset would’ve probably made Miss 5 more upset than she was.

So I just grit my teeth, pretended I was fine with the doll being donated, explained the situation to Miss 5 in the most positive tone I could muster up, and pointed out she still had plenty of other dolls she could play with…and the reality was that she was actually totally understanding and fine with that. She is at an age where with some encouragement, she is starting to learn that material stuff isn’t the most important thing in life, and that she doesn’t really need a whole lot of toys that she hardly ever plays with. Being a minimalist is my eventual goal too so it’s irrational to be mad at my husband. He does really push me to be better, even if it annoys me to be pushed at times.

In this whole theme of letting the kids be more independent and pushing them to grow emotionally, my husband has decided to take Miss 5 on a backpacking adventure overseas. Seeing how much she has changed over her first school year, we realised she is at a very crucial age of development. and we really wanted her to have her own adventure, have new experiences, try new things, learn her potential, and set her up for a great year of Grade 1 ahead. I also thought it would be great for her to actually travel without me. Mums are good at keeping their kids safe and alive. If I was there, I would worry whether she had enough to eat, or enough sleep, and instinctively not push her to do something if she was tired, upset, or scared. I would be packing snacks and entertainment and spare clothes and wipes and a million other things they really don’t need. So, this time I’m stepping back. I’m not going to dictate anything. I’m not going to even tell them what to pack or check what they’ve packed. They’re on their own. I know my husband is more than capable, even if he’s a “pack hardly anything and let’s just survive” kind of guy. I’ve learned though…they will actually always survive. Sometimes, it’s good to be a little scared, uncomfortable, and even bored. They can resolve their own problems without me. I know Miss 5 will grow and mature so much as a result and I’m looking forward to hearing her stories after their trip.

So this is basically my reflection on my parenting from 2018, and what I’m trying to do to fix my own self so that 2019 can be a great year of growth for everyone in my family. I am determined not to hold my kids back from achieving new heights this year. Miss 5 will be starting Grade 1 at the end of the month, and Miss 2 will continue attending playgroups and activities, and hopefully start therapy for her speech issues after being assessed by all the relevant professionals in February and March. It will be a big year for all of us and I hope at the end of it, I’ll be reflecting positively on how much we’ve all grown and changed.

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