A critique of the one and only (loud) response to helicopter parenting Amber Pawlik

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Helicopter versus 'Junkyard' Parents

It is ever popular now to make fun of and distance oneself from the "helicopter parent." The much maligned helicopter parent is one who hovers over their child, often intervening to prevent the child from making a mistake. A commercial for a fruit juice mocked the style of parenting once. It showed the mom answering questions for the child in class, protecting him during dodge ball, and riding a bike for him.

Although this style of parenting has no leading intellectuals championing it; the style is ubiquitous. From the moment they are born, many children are strapped into every gadget available on the market, limiting their movement; told they aren’t allowed to touch anything; and not allowed to develop emerging skills. As they get older, the children are never allowed to struggle through a problem on their own. Parents check up on them for everything, such as calling them numerous times a day to see if they have turned in their homework for a particular class. Sometimes the parents even do the homework for the children! A helicopter parents lives in fear that their child might fail. The parents treat the children as puppets and they are the puppeteers.   

In response to this, the seeming only alternative are those who brag about the outright dangerous things they think a child should do. A very popular article advocating this is from the Atlantic called “The Over-Protected Kid.” The article lit up facebook and popularized the idea of “junkyard playgrounds,” where children play in areas modeled after junkyards and do things like play with fire.

In addition to bragging about letting their children play with fire, go unsupervised, and climb tall structures, those with this philosophy often relish in every cut, bruise, and injury a child might get, all seen as “natural consequences” and teaching tools. They are usually suspicious of formal early education, favoring natural play. There is no official name for this parenting style but given they use it as their rallying cry, I am going to call them “Junkyard Playground Parents,” or “Junkyard Parents” for short.

I propose that neither approach, particularly in extremes, is fully desirable. Whereas helicopter parents tend to produce children who are unmotivated; can’t handle rejection; often make excuses; and are filled with ego despite having few skills, the junkyard parents tend to produce children who are rowdy, aggressive, impulsive, and have cognitive delays. This article will focus primarily the problems with the latter philosophy, which has gone largely unchallenged until now.

The philosophy underlying junkyard parenting is one of extreme pragmatism. A pragmatic does “what works,” without any idea of why something works. An example, for illustrative purposes, may be someone who tries to get to a destination, not by consulting a map and plotting a route, but by just getting in a car and going, getting lost over and over again, until they finally reach their destination. This "bump around in the environment" philosophy is what the junkyard parent relies on as a teaching tool—no teaching, no coaching, no explaining, just letting a child loose on the world, and letting physical pain be their guide.

A simple example may be playing on the stairs. Children are let loose to do as they want. Parents turn a literal blind eye to what is going on. Not only are children not given guidelines or coaching of what may be desirable behavior, rowdiness and rough play is often smiled upon silently, as "kids being kids." When a child takes s a tumble down the stairs, it is seen as a valuable lesson. As the child is still in pain, the parent lectures, "That's what you get for playing on the stairs!"

Another example may be using a knife. There are ways to present knives to children in an age-appropriate and safe way, even at early ages. However, the junkyard parent will often simply hand their child an adult-sized knife and a difficult item to cut. When the child cuts himself, the injury is seen as a valuable lesson.

My biggest issue with this style of parenting, however, is one of the biggest threats that they purposely unleash onto children as a supposed learning aid: other misguided, aggressive children.

In the Atlantic article, “The Over-Protected Kid,” this is bragged about. The author describes how she and another child locked up the children in “jail.” They then went to do something else, and hours later, the children were still sitting in pretend jail. The author, the enslaver, of course gloated about this. She describes, "A couple of them were pretty upset, but back then, the code between kids ruled." It doesn’t strike me at all that the jailed children learned to deal with bullies. If they did, they would have rebelled against the bully. Instead, they learned to accept bullies, as passive sheep.

A much worse example of this can be found in a horrific and maddening article from Huffington Post called, “The Terrible Thing that Almost Happened.” (Note: I cannot find the article as of July 2014 to link to it.) The author describes her parenting style: she happily looks on as her children rough house each other. “That’s what siblings are all about” says the author. Worse, when one of the children inevitably gets hurt, she admonishes them, per her words, “Well you were rough housing and that’s what you get when you rough house.” Here we see unadulterated pragmatism: She secretly smiles and looks on approvingly as her children rough house, not stopping it, i.e., no teaching or coaching is provided. Danger is not just tolerated but embraced. Then when they inevitably hurt, she rubs their nose in it.

But, worse, one time while playing, one of her children’s neck got caught in a belt loop while going down a slide, leaving the child unable to breathe. The other child went to save her. The mother saw this, but, per her words, could not differentiate this behavior from normal rough housing and did not come to the rescue. She only noticed it when the choking child went limp. The other child managed to save the choking child. I can’t imagine the nightmares that child will have, having watched his sibling almost die. This, dear reader, is why I am opposed to junkyard parenting.

This idea of unleashing children upon each other, without any adult supervision whatsoever, as a learning tool, is a very old, very stubborn idea, and I propose has produced disastrous results. I talked with an older couple once, who had a college-aged son and daughter. They described how they thought it was important to put their children into social situations as young children, so they purposely enrolled them in daycare. The husband described to me that they “didn’t quite think the best social interaction would be hitting and punching.” Nonetheless, that is what their children got a large dose of. The wife proudly said to me about her children, “and of course they kicked and punched each other.” They then described how their now adult son, “the engineer,” they apologized, was very socially awkward and wouldn’t go out on Friday nights.

So, I am going to suggest something radical: Their anarchist philosophy of just unleashing children on other children failed for them and failed for their children. It did not produce a socially confident child; it produced a very withdrawn one.

And why wouldn’t this happen? It is hardly a benevolent environment that the children have grown up in. They have learned to fear other children, not see them as providing potential value, such as friendships.

In the news several years ago was an elderly woman riding a bus full of junior high students. Several students were taunting this elderly woman. The video of this went viral with an outpouring of support for the older woman. A charity was started for her that rose over $100,000. This adult woman was not expected to “deal with bullies.” She was seen as a victim. Why then are young, unequipped children expected to do it?

Dealing with aggressors is one of life’s most difficult challenges. The responses range from passive, such as forgiveness, to very forceful—I have met people who want to slaughter aggressors and their families. The issue involves so many nuances and context that it is absurd to think a young child can handle it on their own. In my experience, the natural reaction to aggression, without any guidance, is to get angry and simply mean—perhaps being aggressive back, in ways that don’t actually resolve the problem but are just meant to hurt someone. Or, another response, as seen in previous examples, is pure passivity.

Traditional advice given to parents is to "stay out of it" when children fight. This perhaps is a product of terrible forms of intervention that led to more fighting, leading parents to think to stay out of it. I have indeed seen parents who come in and use typical helicopter/totalitarian methods of trying to resolve issues, where they try to be the judge and jury overseeing their children. They may dictate a solution to the children, such as "You can have the toy for 15 minutes then switch,"—a solution which did not solicit the children's input, does not satisfy any of them, and escalates the situation.

But staying out of it, letting children go unguided, is not the answer either. There are a sizable number of people who still have personality issues and/or will not talk to their siblings because of how terrible bullying and other typical childhood antics were handled in their youth. The pain is real. See the book Siblings Without Rivalry for more examples and for a better method of handling all of this. The ultimate solution is to let the child handle problems on their own but with gentle guidance. It is a most sophisticated art to do this—one that I cannot possibly cover in this article alone—and one that the cavalier junkyard parenting philosophy will never come close to mastering.

An unsafe environment, be if full of physical dangers, predators, or bullies, does not breed self-confident, problem-solving children. It produces fearful ones. How would you react if someone asked you to ballroom dance barefoot on a dance floor strewn with cut glass? You would be cautious to the point of perhaps not wanting to dance.

It is a safe environment unleashes a person’s talents, productivity, and creativity. I watched two toddlers at a pool party once: my own and another boy. Needless to say, we are not aggressive with my son or purposely put him in dangerous, rough situations as supposed learning. The other boy was. The father bragged that the way he learned how to swim was that a friend of the family’s threw him off a boat and told him to swim. At the pool party, my son easily and happily got into the pool. While in there, he made up small, interesting challenges for himself, such as sitting down in water that was almost too deep for him to sit down in. The other boy was extremely fearful to go in the water, screaming as his parent’s tried to put him in. And, I can see why: Even when out of the pool, the father kept pouring water on the son’s head, as the son tried to run away.

Let’s take a look at any brave soul. A modern example is Felix Baumgartner, the man who sky dived from 127,000 feet in the air—certainly a brave spirit. And look at how many safety precautions he went through before jumping. The jump was delayed by several days due to weather. He was in a high-tech suit to guard against extreme weather. There was a lengthy procedure that had to be executed before he jumped. All of these precautions were needed and necessary, and led to a successful jump. Heroism is much more inspiring when the hero comes back alive. This, among anything, encourages an explorer’s spirit.

This interestingly is exactly the philosophical justification for a free society, where man is left in freedom, but a government is there to protect him from aggressors. If a person is allowed to keep the fruits of their labor, they will build. There will be so much productivity, that there will be abundance. If they were worried about any thug, government or private, breaking or taking their stuff, they simply won’t build. They will curl into a ball and simply try to survive. If helicopter parenting can be compared to authoritarian, cradle-to-grave, protect-a-person-from-themselves, coddling styles of government, junkyard parenting can be compared to anarchy. Neither is suited for the nature of man.

In addition to creating fear, another problem with the “injuries as lessons” philosophy is that children are known to bond with their environment. A person who grows up in a violent home may bond with the violence, such as they become “addicted to pain.” When a child gets injured, they come to see the injury as a normal and accepted part of life, especially if told that the injury is a valuable life lesson. They don’t learn to value, with all of their life, their health.

In turn, given the child has come to value injuries to him or herself, they are at high risk of seeing injuring others as a means to teach or “persuade” them to a particular “lesson.” I have come to find that not only are many people narcissists, they are narcissists who are addicted to pain. Being narcissists, the value of good is themselves: wherever they are in their maturation as a human being is, by definition, perfection. Being addicted to pain, whatever trauma or injury they went through is seen as a necessary learning tool for others. The classic example is being spanked as a child. “I was spanked as a child,” says the narcissist, and then the justification: “And I turned out alright,” said by people who are far from the reasoning, empathetic, pleasant, healthy souls with well-run lives that I would consider ideal. This behavior (people advocating others be injured in the same way they were) is everywhere. I don't even see the need to provide examples. Instead, I encourage you to be on the look for it.

I do not think injuries have any value in child development. If your child gets injured while doing an activity, the activity was not age appropriate or it was presented in a way that was unsafe. I don’t blame you for innocent errors, but if they happen, re-think and re-strategize for the next activity presented to your child.

Parents should take with solemn serious setting up a safe environment for their children. It comes as no surprise that a typical junkyard parent sentiment is that they “don’t babyproof their house.” Actually, they probably did. Chemicals and medicines probably got put out of reach of children, even if they don’t remember doing it. I strongly believe in giving children as much access to the house as possible, but still a very diligent effort should be made to keep hazards from children. The leaders of the junkyard philosophy downplay this risk by saying it is statistically insignificant, but it is not as rare as you might think. I am a mom of a 2-year and I have seen how easy it is for a young child to fall or get into things. Imagine if a child got into an adult prescription medicine on accident or got some type of chemical because you haven’t had a chance to babyproof yet. Our cavalier mom from the HuffPo article previously mentioned describes how her child almost died while rough housing. A completely cavalier attitude towards babyproofing/making the environment safe is simply evil.

When it comes to education, the junkyard parent is typically suspicious, especially about early education. Teaching anything is not part of their parenting and educational philosophy. Early education is seen as an attempt to tie down children in a desk, giving boring lectures, when the children should be out playing.

Let’s look at an example: one group of people who don’t expose their children to any “intrusive” education can be found in gypsy populations. There are reality shows on TV that allow a person like me to observe such cultures (granted through the filtered lens of television.) Gypsies call themselves “travelers.” This is because whenever they settle to live somewhere, they are often driven out by residents. The television reality shows typical don’t show why other residents drive them out, but it is largely because they tend to steal things and are just generally undesirable to live next to.

Certainly, these parents do not interrupt their children’s development with any kind of early childhood education. And, it is impressive what the children learn to do at early ages. They showed one child driving heavy construction equipment at just aged 7. And … this is all they learn to do. They do low-level, manual jobs for the rest of their life. They also tend to be very quarrelsome, getting into fights with others frequently. Outsiders are almost never welcome into their society.

I am a big fan of early education—when done right. Education should develop the conceptual mind of the child. If this is not done, I do not think a child will reach his full potential.

Junkyard parents pick the absolutely worst forms of early education and hold them up as examples of why children should engage almost exclusively in natural play. They focus on forms of education which are lecturing in nature, attempt to teach children things they are not cognitively ready for, and don’t follow the natural interests and development of the child.

I am also opposed to these terrible forms of education, but, when done right, early education is of extreme value. Children aged 3-7 have what Montessori called an “absorbent mind.” It is a ripe time to learn how to read, count, learn shapes, colors, and care for their own bodies. All of these things are life skills that, if the junkyard parent was truly interested in raising a self-confident child, would embrace.

Ideal personality traits are not instilled in children either. A typical thing a junkyard parent might say is that they never use the phrase “be careful” around their child—explaining that they don’t want to encourage fear in their child. First, I find it a tad Orwellian to “never” use a particular word. But more importantly, in appropriate contexts, being careful is a value. When an artist paints an extremely fine line on a masterpiece, what is he being? When a physicist double and triple checks all of his equations before recommending them to an engineering staff about to send a man to the moon, what is he being? In a Montessori classroom, one of the activities the children do is carry a pitcher of liquid and pour it to set a table. The child is learning to be ever so careful as he or she carries the pitcher across the room.

Other life habits are not taught in a junkyard home. Things like being respectful of toys, putting toys away, washing hands, etc., are not typically highly valued in their homes. As such, the children are often sick, break a lot of toys, and, of course, break out into fights.

A junkyard parent may think that they are designing their parenting philosophy around the nature of the child, but they design it around the child’s impulses, not their minds. Children are seen as naturally rowdy and aggressive, and influencing this to something else is considered wrong.

The two loud, noisy philosophies presented today are to either puppeteer your child's every move or turn a total blind eye to him, with no guidance whatsoever. The helicopter parent is consumed with fear over if their child will fail. The junkyard parent laughs at fear, but does embrace the physical pain of "natural consequences." If you support a philosophy "without guilt, pain, or fear," neither fit the bill.

What is especially interesting is that the exact same people seem to swing wildly back and forth between these helicopter and junkyard ideologies. I’ll give some examples:

One lady I knew was a helicopter parent with her infant son, not letting him climb stairs; use crayons (he might get them on the walls); and her eyes bugged out of her head when I told her I let my 2-year old son use a steak knife. (The steak knife was used to cut a hardboiled egg which was pre-cut in half for him. No injuries ensued.) I related to her that my son had a minor surgery due to a genetic condition and it was very difficult to watch him go through surgery. I told her that, after that, I took a vow to do everything I could to avoid watching him have to go on the operating table again. She responded to me, “Well, you can’t live in a bubble.” When it came to taking precautions to avoid serious, possibly permanent injury to a child, this woman was apathetic. In the meantime, her son was not allowed to conquer going up and down a few steps at their house.

Or, one man I knew preached about how it was imperative that parents not hover over their children as the children get older and bragged that his son did many things, such as attend survival school. When his adult son took a job where they perceived management as being terrible, the father threatened to send a letter on his adult son’s behalf. His son could go to the bathroom in the woods without a toilet, but he couldn’t be left alone to handle a very real and very common adult problem.

Or, I mentioned earlier an older couple who purposely exposed their children to bullies as a social skills lesson. They also had problems with their children running up big bills on their cell phones due to texting. I told them I thought it was a good policy to make children pay for their own cell phone use, and they stammered that that would be a bit cruel. So, they think their children can rough it alone against violent bullies, but paying for their texting—truly a genuine life lesson—was too mean.

You would think when two ideologies are tugging at each other, that a happy middle would be reached. But this is not always the case and these are good examples. This mixture of helicopter and junkyard parenting is the worst of both worlds: parents guard against the everyday real life problems that should be able to be conquered, but cavalierly putting their children in obviously dangerous situations, in the name of not being over-protective.

I propose a better approach is the exact opposite. Modern parents expose their children to dangers then hover over them when working through school work or real life challenges. Instead, parents should guard against extreme dangers but let their children work through the real life challenges themselves.

These are the guidelines for effective parenting that, in my opinion, research, and experience, produces healthy, happy, capable children:

1.       Provide a safe environment

2.       Suppress undesirable behaviors such as aggression

3.       Teach good habits of respect, such as hand washing and putting toys away

4.       Give a stimulating environment which the child can work freely and peacefully in

When caring for children, some adult supervision is needed. You need not hover over every movement or externally dictate behaviors or solutions, but turning a total blind eye is wrong. The number of behavior to stop or encourage in children are few, but exceedingly important.

First, if at all possible, put the burden of safety on the environment as much as possible. Lock cabinets, remove breakable items, etc. In other words, don’t put children in a junkyard. This liberates both parent and child.

After the environment is set up, some discipline needs to be put in place. Discipline, to me, is divided into two categories: “stop” and “go” behaviors. Stop behaviors are undesirable behaviors to suppress. Go behaviors are desirable behaviors to encourage.

For stop behaviors, I strongly recommend the “Positive Discipline” approach. (I recommend starting this as young as 15 months, which is when the child will start testing you and you will definitely be thinking about discipline.) This approach rejects using punitive discipline, e.g., spankings or timeouts. Instead, children are seen as almost always engaging in a behavior that is age appropriate but which needs gentle guidance towards something more appropriate.

The most important behavior to stop is aggression. Using the PD approach, there should be a firm, gentle, persistent insistence that the child not be aggressive. I think the overwhelming majority of children, especially under the age of about 12, almost never do something to intentionally misbehave or cause harm. They are simply uneducated and need coaching. As such, for aggressive behaviors, I usually favor redirection. If a child is throwing rocks, give him balls to throw instead. Show him better means to do what it is he is trying to do, which is almost always trying something new and something that is developmentally appropriate. This is a very gentle, non-over-bearing approach, but there is an approach. If parents turned a total blind eye to their children, this gentle redirection would never be achieved.   

I previously described how I don’t see injuries as a way to teach children anything. I think this is very congruent with the PD approach. The positive discipline approach, rightly in my opinion, argues that you cannot change a child’s behavior through “blame, pain, or shame.” These are usually dished out to a child by an authoritarian parent via punishment, such as timeout. I think junkyard parents think they are clever by not being authoritarian but letting reality dish out the physical pain for the child. I propose it is the same thing and with the same effect: pain is not a teaching tool. Think of the last time you may have screwed something up. Say you burned dinner. At that moment that you burned dinner, how would you have reacted if someone rubbed your nose in it, saying, "This is what you get when you take your eye off of the frying pan!" Your reaction would be largely negative and defensive. Instead, it is better to let the person cool off after experiencing pain and then do post-analysis of what happened. It is no different with children, when you try to rub their nose in something they did wrong at the time that they are experiencing pain. And, of course, the happiest situation of all is that they experience no pain at all but experienced the success of executing something properly.

For “Go” behaviors, I favor habit formation, starting young. This again means gentle teaching and coaching. Two behaviors I strongly encourage you to instill are hand washing and putting away toys. I would be lying if I said these behaviors were fun to instill in children. They aren’t—at first. I have found that several weeks of gentle insistence, however, starting as young as 15 months, and these ideal habits are easily achieved without much protest or fighting and eventually simply become a happy habit, much to the merriment of all. Because they require an active commitment, I cannot believe that any parent who is silent on the issue actually is instilling these habits.

This discipline approach need not eat up all of your time. It is gentle, swift, and effective. Once you have set up a safe environment by laying down this discipline approach, let the fun begin! The heart and soul of developing the mind of a young child is providing a stimulating environment for them. Yes, this is the “education” part. It is not lectures; it is mostly free. For young children especially, carefully selected activities that keep pace with a child’s rapidly growing abilities should be provided. Again, not a junkyard.

The child should be allowed to work on these activities in peace, working through mistakes on their own. Let’s compare the example of a child being given a knife to cut an apple, resulting in injury, to a healthier example of letting children experience the effects of their mistakes.  In a Montessori classroom, the children play with a wooden block with 10 holes that cylinders of different diameter and/or height fit into. The teacher is not allowed to intervene as the child works through this challenging problem. If the child puts a cylinder that is too big for a hole, the natural result is that it won’t fit. They must choose a different hole. If they put one in that is too small for a hole (too loose), it does fit, but at the end of the exercise, they are left with 1 or more cylinders that won’t fit. They must then re-think their decisions. The child is left alone to solve a problem; they are left to see the consequences of their action. The result is children who can problem solve and work through mistakes. No bodily injury required.

On a final note, yes, I understand, that in the adult human world, in order to live, doing very dangerous things are sometimes necessary, such as go to war against a dictator. The person fighting can expect possible injury, even death, when fighting for his life. I propose that, contrary to popular opinion, the person who has been taught to value his life and use reason makes the better soldier. The art of war is a highly technical skill that needs to be taught. A willingness to embrace physical injury is not enough. The person who does not value their life may blindly go into a situation, putting himself and others at risk. Soldiers tend to be more effective when they are alive. In the words of Patton, “No soldier won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his.” I am not saying that a soldier who died in war was ineffective or weak—many competent and able men met this unfortunate end—but that this mindset is more effective at winning wars.

It is true that the person who values his life and health may be more reluctant to go to war. But, when they do, I believe they would make the better soldier. And isn’t this a happy state of affairs: to be reluctant to go to war, yet effective at it when necessary?

Second, why not show your child how happy life can be while in their forming years? Can it be denied that an environment where very little injury or disease befalls your child and in which they fully develop their mind is the ideal? I have been told many times that I have both a bright and happy child. I value each of these compliments equally—I would not want one without the other. And can I ask you which child will see his life more as worth fighting for: the one that loves his life and this earth or the one who has learned to fear it?

If you believe in a world where people are gentle, peaceful, happy, and who live and let live, do you think this can be achieved unless you model this world for your children when they are young? If you start with the pessimistic premise that they will be faced with terrible things when they are older, thus present terrible things when they are younger, do you not think the cycle will simply continue?

Helicopter parenting may be ubiquitous and you may have a burning desire to rebel against it. But I encourage you to not take the first charismatic philosophy that swaggers on in to oppose it. The junkyard parenting style is pragmatic, anti-conceptual, and leads to rowdy children. I propose a better philosophy exists: one in line with the nature of man, the reasoning creature.

Amber Pawlik
July 12, 2014

The Observant Mom: How to have a Happy Infant through Respect, Observation, and Understanding
Amber Pawlik
This is a very concise book with thoroughly cross-referenced information for parents regarding sleeping and eating habits and the intellectual and physical growth of an infant. A philosophy is presented of respecting the child where the parent observes the child for signs of hunger, sleep, or other needs, and responds appropriately. This book will give you much of the information you need as a parent in just a few hours!

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