Small Families, Helicopter Parenting, and the Fear of Children Being Children

Matt Archbold shared a story that is simultaneously humorous and quite sad.

My wife and I recently attended a sports banquet for one of our kids’ sports teams at a local restaurant. It was one of those events that I wanted to go to about as much as I wanted to get three teeth pulled. But my wife assured me it would be fun. I didn’t believe her but I came anyway.

We’ve gone to so many of these things as my five kids are all on at least three sports teams. All the kids sat together at a very long table and all the parents sat at another table with the coaches. I have a theory about sports teams, the worse a team is the more coaches it has. And this team had lots of coaches.

We were seated with about eight coaches and some parents we didn’t really know.

So what’s the first thing someone we don’t really know will bring up as a conversation starter? Well, it’s the only thing they know about us which is that we have five kids. This one coach said he knew it was us when we arrived because he saw all five of our kids walking in. “That could only be the Archbolds,” he laughed.

The mom directly across from me, who I didn’t really know and hadn’t seen at many games, leaned in conspiritorially and asked, “Who has five children? I’d kill myself if I had that many kids.”

Go to the link to read the rest of the story. The key statement comes here:

The woman, however, didn’t appear to appreciate my little joke and continued that she thought it was irresponsible to have that many children because you couldn’t possibly give enough attention to five kids. She then went on to explain all the things her child is involved in from soccer to piano to basketball to a reading club to field hockey.

Though the Zummo family exceeded the culturally acceptable family size last October with the birth of our third daughter, I must say that we have fortunately not had many if any encounters with such negative people. I have heard the occasional expression of incredulity from parents of one or two children, but nothing approaching the sentiments expressed by this individual.

It’s true that the switch from man-to-man defense to zone makes life more challenging, but we somehow manage to live our lives without countenancing suicide. Perhaps it helps that we don’t fret that every second of every day of our children’s lives are micromanaged to the minutest detail. Sure we would lose our minds if we tried to raise three kids while obsessing over every action they took, but then again, maybe such obsessing parenting isn’t a good idea, no matter how many children one has.

I have been following Lenore Snenazy’s blog Free Range Kids for some time, and every day it seems she relates yet another story about a parent going to jail because their child was found – GASP – at the playground by herself or locked in the car for all of ten minutes. In almost every case some “good Samaritan” has ratted out the parent, calling in the authorities when confronted with the unimaginable horror of an unsupervised minor. I can’t help but think that many of these noble souls are like the woman in Archbold’s blog post. In their conception of parenthood a child cannot be left alone, not even for a single minute. So when they see a child on their own, unsupervised, they immediately assume that the child’s parent is a neglectful monster.

It had been my assumption that there has been a connection between smaller family sizes and the increasing amount of burdensome laws and attitudes when it comes to rearing children. After all, it couldn’t possibly have been a father of six who came up with the child safety seat laws that now have kids in some form of booster seat until just about the time they are legally able to drive. It’s not that all people who are parents of only one or two children are prone to helicopter parenting, but it is a safe bet that most helicopter parents are those with only a child or two to manage.

The question I’ve  been contemplating lately is whether small family size leads to helicopter parenting, or rather it’s more that those who are prone to be helicopter parents tend to want only a child or two. Perhaps, indeed, it is a case where the chicken and the egg both came first.

In the west family sizes have been declining for some time. The situation hasn’t been as acute here in the United States, although we are now at below replacement rate. (Heck, the French are having more babies on average than we are.) Those of us who have families with three or four kids are seen as somewhat strange, and my friends in Church with seven or eight are regarded as strange beings who must clearly have something wrong mentally. Why are large families seen as so unusual? Yes, there are the Malthusians among us who think that large families are destroying the Earth. The larger issue, I believe, is that our materialistic culture has poisoned our attitudes towards children. Insead of being seen as a beautiful blessing, children are seen as a drag on the wallet. A child’s birth is greeted by some as though their wallets are being literally sucked out of their pockets. But this materialism runs deeper. Children themselves become a precious commodity, and what’s more, a precious commodity to be protected at all costs.

What do we do with precious possessions, especially those that cost a decent amount of money? Don’t we treat them with gentle care? (Although it should be noted that even as I type this I am staring at a laptop that is thoroughly cracked, so perhaps not all of us treat our expensive possessions so delicately. At least now any typos can be excused.) So perhaps it is only natural that parents treat their only child – the child who is so pricey both in terms of time and money – with such extreme caution.

I hesitate as I write this because I don’t want to appear too critical. First of all, as I said, not all of those who have smaller family sizes are so overprotective. What’s more, for those who do tend to hover, it’s not exactly an irrational attitude. Even those of us who are perhaps somewhat easier going are not without our worries, so it’s understandable that when the concern concentrated in just a single child it might become somewhat more strenuous. That being said, either way these attitudes are dangerous. First off, the fear of having multiple children is feeding the contraceptive mentality. Our birth rate is falling and more and more people are putting off child rearing later and later – if at all. Then we suffocate the children we do have, eschewing time away from home at the playground for another round of piano lessons or some other pre-determined activity. (And no, I am not saying that children should not take piano lessons, but I also think children should be allowed to be children at least some of the time.)

It is a vicious circle. The reluctance to embrace children in all their noisy, messy glory leads to shrinking family sizes, and shrinking family sizes are turning people into overbearing worrywarts who have a constricted vision of what childhood is supposed to be about. This in turn only turns up the pressure on those of who who have more extensive families. We have to cram kids into child safety seats until they’re ready for prom, and we surely can’t leave our children in those seats when we go to the grocery store, even if it’s just to pick up a single item. And if we send our kids outside in the brief interlude between piano and Chinese lessons, we better sure to watch those kids like a hawk and stand no more than ten feet from the children lest John Q. Law rolls up on us.

It would be one thing if this sort of helicopter parenting affected only those being helicoptered, but the helicopter parents are helicoptering the rest of us, and in the end it only serves to stifle us all – child and adult alike.

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  1. Thanks be to God for large families.
    A large family a century ago might of been fourteen or so, however today the objection to families with five or more children is disheartening. A close friend of ours has eight children, and homeschools another seven children.
    He is a humble man earning a modest wage, yet the children never are in want.
    Especially when it comes to parental love. I’m in awe of their love for God neighbor and their children.
    God bless you parents that are frowned upon by the politically (in)correct types.

  2. “I have been following Lenore Snenazy’s blog Free Range Kids for some time, and every day it seems she relates yet another story about a parent going to jail because their child was found – GASP – at the playground by herself or locked in the car for all of ten minutes”

    Astonishing how the world has changed in five decades. Back in the Sixties in the summer in my town kids were kicked out of their houses at 7:00 AM, fed at noon, and then kicked back out until supper. We were left to amuse ourselves with the neighborhood kids with nary an adult in screaming distance. My brother and I at seven were walking to grocery stores up to a mile away to buy items for our parents. I emphasize that none of this was at all unusual. This used to be how life was and I am very glad that I was raised in that environment, including lots of chores, that taught me at an early age to be self-sufficient, resourceful and how to deal with others without Mommie and Daddie running interference for me. We have managed as a society to foul up the simplest things that prior generations had no difficulty doing with ease.

  3. “What do we do with precious possessions, especially those that cost a decent amount of money? Don’t we treat them with gentle care?”

    Reasonable care, yes.

    Now, I suppose my most valuable possessions are my horses (and I love them dearly), but if I were so nervous of an injury to them, or me, that I never jumped them, hunted them, rode point-to-point, then why have horses at all?

  4. It seems the anti life mentality goes along with an anti- child mentality. Listen to the commentators and jokers about how terrible it is to be -horror of horrors- on a plane with small children on board.

  5. Anzlyne , part of the problem small children have on an airplane has to do with their parents. I took my two little boys, 6 and 2 to Tampa in June. the 2 year old was scared of the turbulence, which was unavoidable. I invested in a DVD player and got a $5 DVD of the movie Unstoppable (the train that roared through fictional Pennsylvania towns). They were fine.

    We have two boys. We wish we had more, as we lost three to miscarriage, and we may not have anymore. I am nearly 51 and menopause is right around the corner for my wife. I grew up with three brothers. We battled, fought, got hurt and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. My childhood was not very different from Mr. McClarey’s. In May I stared out the window during school. June did not come soon enough. We were outside – riding bikes, swimming, climbing trees, and as we got older did yard work, washed the car, used scrap lumber to build things, etc.
    My dad was a proponent of a longer school year. I am not. Kids need to go outside and be kids during the summer. More than likely they will spend a lifetime indoors, from school to work.

    I have worked for over 25 years in an office setting. Rare is the coworker I have encountered with more than two kids. Frequently encountered is the married childless coworker.

  6. Silly Paul, you have no idea how the nightmare is just beginning

    My parents wanted 3-4 children but, alas because of health reasons I ended up being their only one. I myself will seem to never be a father (I really would have liked to have 2 or 3 by now) so yes, sometimes I (and others I know) feel a bit angry at those who throw away the “extra” children they might have had when some families would gladly take more.

    I’d be interested to see if there’s any correlation between the helicoparents and the houses they were raised. If I was to venture a guess, I’d say maybe they were raised in single households and so felt deprived of affection (and want to be sure their child does not). It seems odd because life was once so much more fragile (I read how President Coolidge lost his son when the boy was playing tennis and got a blister – TENNIS!) – perhaps that’s why heaven and faith was so infused in society, because we missed everyone so much. Nowadays if your mom permits, you’ll be highly likely to live and make it to adulthood, yet parents act so frightened as if blisters still had a chance to be fatal. A side effect of the loss of culture saturation in faith and the afterlife? I don’t know. Maybe the answer is all of the above.

  7. Nate Winchester wrote, “life was once so much more fragile…”
    “Sir, replied Dr. Slop, it would astonish you to know what improvements we have made of late years in all branches of obstetrical knowledge, but particularly in that one single point of the safe and expeditious extraction of the fœtus,——which has received such lights, that, for my part (holding up his hand) I declare I wonder how the world has——I wish, quoth my uncle Toby, you had seen what prodigious armies we had in Flanders.” (Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne c XLIII (1759))

  8. Before pornography became free speech, before abortion freed individuals of parental responsibility, before atheism became a religion, before the Ten Commanments were torn from their post, before the Person of God was evicted from His Creation, people were free to enjoy life.
    .
    Before ritilin was forced on children to make them look happy, before parents were excluded from their children’s upbringing, except to take the blame, children had a happy life, to dream, to plan, to create. Children had fun.

  9. I’m one of seven & my poor Mom would be in the slam. If I were moping about the house she would tell me, “Go out and play, ride your bike!” sending me off in the dangerous world (horrors!) possibly never to return.
    Of course, in the olden days “it takes a village” had meaning in the true sense. Any misbehavior on my part would be reported back to my folks at the speed of sound.
    It was considered fine to leave an older sibling to babysit the younger.
    It was expected that kids would get their share of bumps and bruises, maybe even a broken bone.
    What a difference a few decades make.

    I think XKCD hits it right on the head:
    http://xkcd.com/946/

  10. So many people who have few to no kids of their own want to parent yours. Look at how many empty-nesters and 2-1-zeros there are in your legislature. Think about that. Election season is upon us. Vote wisely.