Chopper Down: Hovering Over the Truth

So here's a news flash. The latest research indicates that helicopter parents are doing their children a grave disservice. Turns out all that hovering leads to depression and low self-esteem. When mom and dad do for you what you should be doing for yourself, the take-away is a nagging sense of incompetence.

You've got to hand it to the popular media. They never fail to explain the obvious as though it were some kind of obscure truth. Binge drinking makes you drunk! Texting while driving causes accidents! Micromanaging your kids' lives discourages independence! Who knew?

I did. You did. And so did most adults in possession of their faculties. We knew these things, and we also knew, deep in our hearts, that calling our child's teacher to insist that a grade be changed is a truly terrible idea. Calling our child's boss to demand a raise is a Saturday Night Live bit. Or should be.

Let me pause in my judgmental rant to acknowledge that, in the course of my own checkered parenting career, I have done my share of hovering. Long before the Internet and cable news, milk cartons reminded us daily of the child snatchers lurking on every corner. In our suburban Chicago neighborhood, children walked or biked to school. My older sons traveled in packs with their friends, but my youngest, a first-grader, had no escort. When I finally yielded to his pleas to ride the six blocks solo, it was with fear and trembling. I used to wait 15 minutes after his departure each morning, then steal over to the school to insure that his bike was there in the rack, proof that he had made it safely. At 3:15, I was at the kitchen window, my heart in my mouth until he wheeled into the driveway.

I did not reveal this stealth hovering to him, although he probably knew. Children's antennae are sharp, and I've never had much of a poker face. I tried to keep my anxieties to myself, but the fact is that they lingered for a very long time. Well after my bike-rack-checking days were over, I continued to hover mentally on the edges of my children's lives, willing their safety, their good choices, their physical and spiritual health silently and from a distance.

One year out of college, my youngest son was shot in the face by a mugger on the streets of Charleston, S.C. I had ceased my mental monitoring some time before, but this event blew detachment out of the water. As we raced to his side, I felt the old surveillance motor rev up again.

Mercifully, he had suffered no grave bodily harm. The bullet passed through his chin, and so he was spared. This was the first miracle. The second was no less striking to me. On the night of the shooting, and in the weeks and months that followed, his friends surrounded him with a solid wall of support. When we left him to return home, they were there. They brought pots of gumbo and six packs of beer and made outrageous jokes and played guitar on his rickety porch. They came early and stayed late. They talked about what had happened until they didn't need to talk about it anymore.

Four hundred plus miles away, the thought of that phalanx of twentysomethings kept my inner helicopter still. I remembered the old saw about the two most important gifts a parent can give a child: roots and wings. He had his family roots, and the roots he had put down in a new place, with a family of friends. And there, in a moment of crisis, we each discovered wings.