Hands-Off Mom or Helicopter Mom?

This month’s topic for PAIL is the following:

How do you decide how much independent play is best for your child, and how long of a leash do you give them to do that?

There’s a lot wrapped up in my answers to that question. First of all, what you must know about me, is my guilt complex is over-developed. When it comes to other people, most of what I worry and think about it is “what would a good ____ (mother, wife, daughter) do?” and I measure myself by that yardstick. If I deviate at all, I feel guilty and horrible. I’m a horrible wife, a horrible daughter and a horrible mother.

Two weeks ago when we had a weekend with few plans (usually a yay!) after unexpected days home due to illness, I was crabby and frustrated. Probably a little anxious too. I stormed outside with Daniel that Saturday and Jimmy looked at me, inquiring, “what is wrong?” I answered, “I’m bored.” I practically stomped my feet like a 6-year-old. And the guilt set in immediately. After all, how can you possibly be bored with your children? Isn’t that an impossibility? A good mother wouldn’t ever feel bored. She would identify a suitable craft and get to work. Or plan a nature walk to identify various types of flora and fauna through the local paths.

The guilt set in immediately. How could I feel bored with this small boy, my treasure? My miracle? I should spend every damn moment he’s awake playing with him on the floor. He should have whatever he wants, and I should try to make his environment as stimulating and wonderful as possible. Isn’t that what a good mother, a mother who appreciated the incredible blessing she had been given would do?

The truth is, Daniel plays well by himself and always has.  He asks us to play with him from time to time, and we do, but he is happy playing by himself.  This frees us up to do laundry, dishes, cook, clean, get ready for the next day while keeping an attentive ear out for his play. I love it and of course, I feel guilty about it. Shouldn’t I be playing with him all the time? Shouldn’t we be his companions and work to develop his imagination and skills all the time? How can dishes and laundry compare with such a responsibility?

While I do feel guilty naturally, a lot of the guilt I feel is compounded by how much effort we went through to have him. If we worked so hard to have him, how could we prioritize chores over him? Surely, he should come first and take precedence over everything. The problem is that I’ve also learned my limits and what I do and do not enjoy about parenting. I am not a great person to play with preschoolers right now. They are set in their ways and want to play on their terms. Such absolutism frustrates me. Right now, Daniel would rather watch a couple of videos than read books during our bedtime routine, which I get, but is still a shock to the system.

I guess the real question is how you let your children develop their own interests and become their own people, yet still feel like you have influenced them and made sure they know how much you love them? Right now, Daniel is enrolled in no extracurricular activities. I’ve thought about swimming lessons or tae kwon do, but it hasn’t progressed beyond that. Daniel’s school day is 8-2:45 followed by after school care from 2:45-5ish or whenever I pick him up.  We think that’s enough activities for now, but I wonder if we are denying him from having important experiences. And then I remind myself that he’s 4 and it’s OK. He can just be a little boy for now. Right?

I suppose that to move on from what is rapidly becoming an encomium to the guilt that rules my existence, I should look at some of the other PAIL questions:

Are you more “hands off” as a parent than you thought you’d be? More of a “helicopter parent?” Are you happy with the type of parent you’ve turned out to be?

I do feel like I am more hands-off than I anticipated, and unsurprisingly, I have mixed feelings. I love that Daniel can play by himself in our home, but I wonder if I should do more to encourage play with us. When we go to a public park or museum, we hover quite a bit because we went through a hitting phase when Daniel was 2 that still haunts us. He’s almost 4.5, yet we still feel the need to hover in public. JHC, it’s almost like PTSD.

I struggle a lot with trying to figure out the parenting style that genuinely works with us and what the “experts” say we should do. Daniel is happy. Daniel likes his toys. We have great conversations in the car, at dinner and at bedtime. Are we ignoring him or fostering his independent play skills?

Ultimately, I think it boils down to what your definition of a good mother is. In 2013, it still comes back to that.




  1. I sometimes berate myself for not playing enough with my kids (see previous comment, I guess). But I also think you’re right, that the self-sufficiency is a good lesson. I think about what my parents did with me, and they were completely hands-off … and I turned out pretty well. In fact, I suspect that in general kids turn out well if they feel loved and supported. Which Daniel clearly does. 🙂

  2. What an obnoxious prompt. Though I suppose there’s a chance it could show that there are a lot of right answers to the question and not spark off a mini-mommy-wars forcing people to feel guilty if they think they helicopter or neglect (even though most likely they don’t do either).

    Your answer is good. 🙂 So is Justine’s.

    Here’s our parenting philosophy: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/our-parenting-philosophy/

    Also, most “expert” stuff is based on zero science. Some of it is, of course, but not the stuff that’s making a ton of money selling books exploiting the maternal guilt industry.

    1. Yikes, I definitely didn’t mean it to be an obnoxious prompt when I wrote the topic! I’ve just noticed that my ALI parenting friends are no different than my “easily fall pregnant” friends in that we all parent differently than we maybe envisioned pre-children, and it’s interesting to hear from people if they feel it’s a by-product of how THEY were raised, what their particular child(ren)’s ingrained personalities are, or actually how they intended to parent. No judgement no matter what the answer is…

      1. Putting it into the infertility context makes it seem a lot less like mommy-wars bait! (Clicked on the full prompt.) When DC1 was tiny I was so sure he was going to just suddenly die for no reason (because: infertility trauma, miscarriage etc.) and was incredibly protective… but now that he’s managed to pass infancy unharmed, I’ve been much less anxious with him and with DC2. So it didn’t last.

  3. K – I like your point about the lingering PTSD of having a child who hit affecting how long your leash is in public. I’ve always given Stella free reign at the park, but if she started getting physical with other kids (entirely possible as she’s just turning 2), it would DEFINITELY change my feelings on how much latitude I could give her!

    “A good mother wouldn’t ever feel bored. She would identify a suitable craft and get to work. Or plan a nature walk to identify various types of flora and fauna through the local paths.” — this made me crack up, b/c I am most definitely the parent who gets bored, and most definitely NOT the parent who would come up with a craft or nature walk idea. For me it’s been hard to balance the desire to “be all” as a parent who so desperately prayed for this for years…with the (not really all that)selfish “i need my own time” side of reality. It’s a balance I’m always struggling to find!

    Thanks for participating this month!

  4. It’s kind of a hard one, I think there should be a balance. I am probably a helicopter mom sometimes and hands off at others. Nicky plays pretty well by himself but when he gets stuck he lets me know and I help him. I don’t think it’s such a label, it’s just being in tune to the needs of your child.

  5. I don’t think there is any right/wrong do this, since we all fall on a spectrum of hands-on/hands-off based on our own and our child’s unique personality. I let my older son play hover-free on the playground, but my 2-year old is also a hitter of other kids so I have to hover obsessively and can imagine that becoming a habit. I refuse to let either kid walk on the sidewalk without hand-holding, though my husband lets go of the older’s hand since he walks them to/from school everyday, he knows that B doesn’t try to run into the street anymore (though L will). At home, its very day-to-day hour to hour. Sometimes I let them play by themselves while I get stuff done, then I miss them and join them. Then I get bored of Legos and decide to fold laundry. Etc… When I try to “be present” all day with them, I find myself mindlessly surfing on my phone so its better to just get the chores done and then have shorter periods of dedicated “being present” time.
    Please don’t feel guilty over anything you are doing, K, you seem to have a wonderful balance that fits for you and D and your family. (and whatever it is, it’ll change in 3 weeks, right?)

  6. I briefly considered writing a post and then realized that I didn’t have a lot to say (at least not while I have a baby-wake-up fogged brain). Like you, I’m more hands-off than thought I would be, but I’m okay with that. Independent play is a beautiful thing. Like one if your commenters, I’m incredibly anxious about infancy, but once past that, not so much. I’m curious as to why your feeling is that a “good” parent would always be playing with her kid. Before I had kids, I swore I wouldn’t be one of those hovering parents who gave parenting a bad name (Though I thought I’d have to fight the urge to hover. Ha!), and I find it curious that there are two dramatically different messages of “good” parenting out there. (But, again, too tired to unpack it.)

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