I don’t think I’m a ‘helicopter parent’. My parenting style’s always been a bit more chaotic and on the hoof than helicopter parenting allows for. But as the kids are getting older, and are under my watch less than ever, I totally get the impulse to hover anxiously, and micromanage their existence, even if its not what I do in practice.
Because I get as a parent how absolutely excruciating it sometimes is to send your child out into the world in all their glorious imperfection, to start messing up, getting feedback, and experiencing rejection.
I recognise a supremely strong drive in me, at times, to control the heck out of this reality. To stamp on it for dear life, and try to stop certain things happening. To clamp down. And stop the scary bits from ever happening. And pretend that I am In Charge, when events are showing me that I’m absolutely not.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for one moment suggesting we let our toddlers play on main roads, or get reckless with their safety. That stuff feels pretty black and white when they’re small, and so much of your energy goes into simply keeping them alive, and tempering their more reckless and impulsive behaviours.
But the older they get, the greyer it seems to get. And with their emerging independence comes a new space in which letting go is absolutely an option.
That’s what I’m learning anyway.
That I can’t control it all. That the helicopter impulse has no place here. That it’s going to unfold exactly as it needs to. And that I can choose how I’m going to interact with that. That sometimes it’s going to look like an emotional car crash, and is definitely going to feel like one as a parent-onlooker. Particularly in those moments when their actions make me feel vulnerable, exposed or open to criticism and my strongest urge is to get all dictatorial over the situation.
And the older they get, the more opportunities I have to practice not doing this.
There’s a process that they (and I) have to go through. That in the same way that I am following (to borrow from Marianne Williamson) the “personalised curriculum” that is my life, the children are also following theirs.
And while I am inevitably tangled up in that, they also have a path to walk that is completely and utterly their own. And which has everything and nothing to do with me. All at the same time.
So as I send them out into the world I have to trust that their choices will teach them the lessons they need to learn. That the consequences of what they do and who they are will show them what they need to be shown.
And that feels like a radical kind of surrender.
Because as long as I’m on this planet I will always be there waiting to hug them and comfort them after the event. But ultimately, they have to go out there and do the doing themselves.
That’s the bit I can’t do on their behalf.
I can’t make their mistakes for them, or get into their scrapes on their behalf, or mess up royally in place of them. Because that’s their business.
And that’s as scary as it is exciting. There’s a beautiful freedom in letting go. In having faith, not only in the bad stuff that might befall them, but also in the amazing opportunities that will come their way out there in the world – the strikes of fortune, the love, passion and excitement of being alive, the magic that’s available to them – which crucially, is every bit as possible and inevitable as their mistakes and misfortunes will be.
My kids love the movie ‘The Croods’. It’s on a lot in our house. And it’s deeply profound as it turns out. The father of the prehistoric Crood family, Grug, repeatedly tells his children “never not be afraid”, and tells disaster stories about children who took risks and got curious about the world “and died”, believing that in doing so, he is keeping his own children ‘alive’.
But at the end of the movie his eldest daughter, Eep, sets him straight, when she tells him:
“That wasn’t living! That was just….not dying!”.
She’s so right. There’s a difference.
And now that they’re older, and the ‘not dying’ phase of parenthood seems to have passed, my job is now to let go, surrender a bit more, and let them get out there and live – fully, joyfully, messily and imperfectly.