Leeway with Limits

June 29, 2023

Helicopter Parenting or Sheer Negligence?

Finding the Balance

R. Silver

There’s a term in vogue today to describe overprotective parents—helicopter parenting. Heard of it?

Psychologists define helicopter parenting as a parenting style that expresses overprotective behaviors toward the child.

But who defines overprotective? And what’s the difference between being overprotective of your children and keeping them safe?

On the flip side, how much independence do we want to give our children? When do freedom and confidence turn into neglect?

The benefits (and cons) of unattached parenting

In 2008, a woman left her son alone in Manhattan with some quarters, a subway map, a MetroCard and a $20 bill and told him to find his own way home. She then wrote a column about it. The criticism she received was overwhelming. People called her a negligent mother, uncaring, and abusive.

She claimed she was trying to teach her child responsibility and expressed wonderment at the backlash she received. To her, the fact that she received such negative feedback was a sign of the times, in which helicopter parenting is so prevalent.

Is this something that our community struggles with?

It’s hard to say.

On the one hand, we have seminary students calling home for help with every report, parents calling their child’s school for every issue that crops up, and married children who cannot function without their parents’ assistance.

On the other hand, we see small children playing by themselves in the street, teenagers in restaurants without supervision, and bachurim off on long road trips alone.

Psychologists list a host of benefits of giving children independence, including promoting confidence and self-esteem and developing self-awareness. As frum parents, we’re not just looking to give children independence, but to protect them spiritually. On the other hand, if we never expose our children to challenges, how will they manage when they need to?

Can we keep our children protected yet let them try their wings?

Free play

It’s six o’clock on a summer evening in a small development in Lakewood. Children of all ages ride up and down the quiet streets on their scooters and bikes. Girls dart in and out of homes. The clock hits seven, and with supper and bedtime looming, mothers start wondering, Where are my children?

Rikki, who lives in a typical Lakewood development, doesn’t see this as a problem. “I live in a safe neighborhood, and I know all the families on my block. I might not know where my kids are every evening, but they know they need to be home after it gets dark, and I know that if I can’t find them, all I need to do is call up one of the neighbors. I happen to be a nervous type, but it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know where my kids are every second. It’s normal.”

“Obviously, letting our kids play outside unsupervised depends on many things such as the age, maturity level of the child, and the safety level of the environment,” noted therapist Dr. Sara Teichman says. But generally, she feels that there needs to be some sort of shemirah. She suggests making a rotation with the neighbors so that the younger children, at least, have some level of supervision at all times.

“The child has to know they aren’t left on their own. We can’t take the chance. We can’t compromise when it comes to safety,” she cautions. “Saying that our kids are learning to be independent doesn’t mitigate the risk of getting hurt. I have a real concern when I see parents leave a child or two in a shopping cart while they meander up and down the aisle in the supermarket. It only takes a second for a child to fall.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg notes that if the child is educated properly, freedom is a chance to put what they learned into practice. “Teach your child about what to do when playing outside, what the plan of action should be when the ball rolls into the street, and when they should come and get you.”

The same rule can apply to children playing with a friend who has a different hashkafic viewpoint. “If you prepare and educate your child before, the interaction can be a great learning experience. Tell the child, ‘Our family is very special and unique, and not every family does what we do. If this family wants to play ball on Shabbos and we don’t, what should you do?’”

It’s not all about safety or even hashkafic concerns, though.

“When adults are nearby, children feel more calm, and the whole dynamic is different,” Mrs. Seryl Berman, noted parenting teacher, points out. “They know not to cross certain lines.”

When children are left to play unsupervised, the lack of adult presence gives them a license to act as they please. Teasing, name-calling, and excluding rear their ugly heads when children are alone.

“I remember once, years ago, seeing a group of seven- or eight-year-old boys playing outside on Shabbos with no one watching them. An older boy walked by wearing a weekday down jacket, and the children ran after him laughing and teasing. If a parent had been watching, such behavior would never have occurred. Even if one of those boys would have begun taunting, adult presence would have empowered the others to withstand the social pressure of copying such low behavior.”

At a recent Torah Umesorah convention, a workshop emphasizing the importance of teachers watching their students during recess was given. So many problems are prevented when children know there is an adult watching.

The ruchniyus perspective

Independence is great, but what about when it impedes your spiritual standards? How careful do we have to be with whom our children play with? Should we double-check into each family before allowing our kids to go to their house? Or do we say that it’s healthy for children to be exposed to other types?

“My parents never allowed us to sleep at friends’ houses,” a noted mechanches shares, “and when I got married, I did the same. My children can invite their friends over, no problem, but they’ll never sleep out.”

Many others agree with this perspective, citing potential spiritual dangers, safety issues, and the idea that children belong at home and not out and about.

Others claim it’s healthy fun. “I am happy when my daughters have sleepovers,” Mrs. Berman says. “Their school friends are lovely girls, and I like that they gain from experiencing other wonderful Shabbos tables. Being with other families as they sing zemiros and spend quality time together solidifies their circle of security. It takes a village to raise a child; I like my children to get to know their friends’ mothers, and I like getting to know my children’s friends. But that’s very much my perspective. I don’t think this is something you can categorize as right or wrong.”

What about the road trips that have become ubiquitous for bachurim these days?

Rav Yaakov Berman, rav of Khal Bais Tfillah, says, “The Torah makes it very clear that we can’t expose ourselves and our children to negative influences. It is an issur d’Oraysa to expose ourselves to apikorsus or any type of pritzus. It’s a halachah in Shulchan Aruch that one may not eat or drink with non-Jews. One of the reasons there was a chiyuv to destroy the seven umos in Eretz Canaan was because the Torah didn’t want us to be influenced by the nations.

“People might think, Oh, let me expose my son to the internet and the outside world when he’s young so he can deal with it when he’s older, but that’s not our viewpoint at all. If you keep them away, keep them totally sheltered, when the time comes, they will have the knowledge in their gut that this is dangerous and they should deal with it with caution.”

Regarding road trips, “When you send a group of young bachurim out by themselves to be exposed to the world, there are major nisyonos that come up. I don’t recommend it. On the other hand, I understand that there are very few options for older bachurim. I’m not a menahel, but I do feel that it is somewhat a responsibility of the menahel to make sure they don’t lose everything they gained a whole year due to a road trip. Some yeshivos set up major gedarim; others actually take their bachurim on trips—that way they have their own nucleus and they are automatically shielded.”

Step in or step out?

Twelve-year-old Aliza comes home from day camp each day, face gray with exhaustion. She’s working for your neighbor this summer, and from what you’ve picked up, the director is really taking advantage of her. Aliza is agreeable and sweet and a total pushover, and you know she’ll never say no to a boss. Should you call your neighbor and set things straight?

Rabbi Ginsberg says no. Tempting as it is, parents are doing their child a much bigger service by encouraging the child to take care of the issue themselves.

“The child needs to know that of course, they can go to their parents for advice at any time, but they won’t take care of the issue for them. When the child comes home complaining that the rebbi doesn’t call on him, sit hm down and ask him why he thinks the rebbi isn’t calling him, and then discuss what the child can do about it.

Aliza’s mother might think that the problem of her daughter being overworked will be solved with a simple phone call, but she will be teaching her daughter lifelong skills if she encourages her to speak up for herself.

“Not every child is capable of reaching out to an authority figure,” Dr. Teichman notes. “Still, unless the child is really getting hurt, it’s best to encourage the child to take care of the issue on their own. If they cannot or are unsuccessful, you can then step in. But you can’t protect them from every boo-boo in life.”

The same applies to a child who is overspending.

Chaim is 13 and has no concept of money. He recently made some money doing odd jobs, and instead of saving it, he is buying ice creams and new balls and whatnot. His spending is so irresponsible; should you insist that he save his money?

“I believe that the problem of overspending very often reflects—or is the exact opposite of—the attitude in the home,” Dr. Teichman says. “You can try to impart good values, but you can’t force behavior; you will only drive it underground. While it is certainly the goal to have children first give tzedakah, then bank some funds, and enjoy the rest, forcing this process is an unhealthy manifestation of helicopter parenting and may backfire.”

Rabbi Ginsberg recommends dealing with overspending the same way parents should deal with any issue: educate, but don’t control.

“Teach the child about how to save money. Tell them about bank accounts. Explain to them that even Mommy and Totty ask for advice sometimes about how to spend their money, and they can do the same. But that’s it. After that, you need to take a step back and let them figure it out themselves.”

Once the child has left the nest, the stakes are often higher—and the decision whether to get involved more difficult.

Miri’s kids are adorable, and as their grandmother, you love watching them. But you can’t help but admit that Miri never seems to have enough time for them. She’s busy with a nine-to-five job and is involved with a thousand other things as well, and her kids seem to be paying the price. Should you gently suggest to Miri that maybe her kids come first?

“The most important thing,” says Rabbi Ginsberg firmly, “is to never connect power with finances. You can’t tell your child, ‘I support you; therefore, you should do x.’ When it comes to helping them out, financially or otherwise, if you have the ability to, you could assist as long as you’re not handicapping your child by doing so.”

Dr. Teichman concurs. “If a request is legitimate—and that’s the parent’s judgement—then yes, they can help if they choose to. But when parents are overly involved, it prevents the children from learning to depend on each other. Parents should not be getting involved in married children’s lives.”

It’s something that all parents know but is hard to act on, especially when we see our older children making easily preventable mistakes.

“It’s not easy to see our children in pain, but we cannot solve all of their problems or live their lives for them,” Dr. Teichman says.

While the absentee parent is negligent in their duties, the overprotective, helicopter parent hurts their children by robbing them of autonomy and decision-making capabilities.