Helicopter Parenting Is So Over: Welcome Satellite Parents!

I took the kids to the park today, as I so often do. It was too hot to stay around our own town, though, so we fled far south, where it was about twenty degrees cooler. The wonderful advantage to an outing like this is that it gave me a chance to bring the kids to a park they’d never been to before. The disadvantage is that we were at a park I’d never been to before.

Being at an unfamiliar park means not knowing where the exits are, where the tallest opening on the climbing structure is, where the blindspots are, who the usual patrons are, where the water fountains and restrooms are. It means being ignorant of the dangers and the conveniences. This is the kind of environment in which Helicopter Parents thrive: justifying their hovering by recognizing how very alien everything is, they spend their park time attached to their kids’ shirts, stressing themselves out, ironically, in an attempt to acquire peace of mind.

Contrast these parents with what some have called the “free range” parents, who find a nice picnic table or spot in the shade and take a breather while the kids are running over each other and throwing sand in each other’s eyes. They believe, probably sincerely, that kids just need to work it all out and that if they intervene too much in their kids’ play activities they will never become self-sufficient adults.

If there is one thing I am more helicopter-than-free-range about, it’s losing my kids in a strange place. I always have to know exactly what they are doing and where they are doing it. However, for the most part that is the extent of my involvement in their play when they have other kids around, especially in a park setting. I want them to do the playing, the learning, and, yes, the falling and scraping and bumping and fighting.

I am a Satellite Parent. I observe from a distance, but always keenly. I take orbits around the park, keeping track of general patterns of movement, and noting where the big falls are likely to happen. I take a lot of pictures. I wend nearer or farther from activities that seem high risk or low risk, always evaluating, rarely interfering.

But an emergency situation gets the Special Forces sent in.

Satellite Parenting is not relaxing. It’s not me-time at the park. I’m not social, or chatty. It’s all about the kids, but in such a way that the kids don’t feel my presence unless their fundamental safety requires it. Because I’m always watching, if I see one of them look a little lost, or anxious, about not being able to see me (because I’ve moved on from my last spot as I take orbits), I’ll wave or call-out. That’s just a check-in, and it requires first that the kid wants it to happen.

Sometimes I lose sight of one kid or the other. That is going to happen when you have more than one kid at the park and the other isn’t on a leash. If I’ve been orbiting correctly, though, I know the likely spots where the other can be found, the really interesting slides or the dangerously intriguing hillside. I still always freak out on the inside, though. I have an irrational (?) fear of losing them; if I gave into it we would only ever play in large empty rooms with one exit that I was blocking.

I like going to new parks, watching the kids experience new challenges and new environments, watching them practice their physical and social skills. Satellite Parenting may not be as fun as either Helicopter (which means at least getting to constantly play with your kid, even if they never get to do anything) or Free Range (which I could never have fun doing anyway since, as I said, I am paranoid about losing the kids), but it is a special class of fun, I think. It’s the kind of fun you have when you watch your child perform in the school play, or run a race, or meet a goal. It’s vicarious, sure, and for many people parents taking vicarious pleasure in their kids’ lives is everything that’s wrong with modern life. But my kids make me proud. Watching them at the park makes me proud. There’s nothing wrong with that.

23 thoughts on “Helicopter Parenting Is So Over: Welcome Satellite Parents!”

  1. WORD.  My husband and I are often alarmed by the awful feeling that we are the only ones paying attention in just that way — on high alert, but from a discreet distance.  There is a happy medium!

  2. Yup, satellite parenting perfectly describes it. Now that my duo is older, they're both four, I can relax a wee bit but I rarely sit down. There are definitely days where I wish that I could sit and sip my coffee in peace and read but the thought of losing one of my kids terrifies me.

  3. I agree, I had no idea what type of parenting I do before now…. often I go to the park with a friend and her child and we sort of laugh because she is more helicopter and I am more satellite so we get very little catching up done…..  love this post

  4. A couple of years ago, on my first outing with the SAHD group here, all the dads were talking to each other while I was hovering around my kid. He was younger than the other kids, and a little less predictable, but I decided this was the time to stay in the dad circle and let my find his way in the world. 

    Took him ten seconds to get to the road.

    Was a long time before I was able to do the satellite parenting again.

    1. There's a line, and not really a fine one, between satellite (which is

      vigilant) and free range (which is not). I take a lot of comfort from my

      orbiting.

  5. I just saw a segment on the Today show about parenting and the fact that parents of today do not want their children to experience the negative side of life….the cuts, the falls, the arguements with friends.  They want them to stay "happy".   And how important it is for parents to allow their children to experience all these scenarios so they can handle them as adults.   I think your satellite parenting keeps them safe while still allowing them to  handle their own ups and downs.

  6. I like your take on this. Helicoptering is just going to stunt your kids' independence, but it's still important to keep tabs on them.

    I don't think that free-range parents are all about relaxing in the shade and letting their kids run around unsupervised, though. I would call those parents "irresponsible," not free-range.

  7. Nail…head.  Great post, love the moniker. Makes me feel "heavenly" about my parenting method.  I like it better than telling my peers I'm not a "freak out" kind of parent.

  8. Well said. Now I have a label for myself when I get the nasty looks from other parents when I tell my 7YO to go push herself on the swings. 

  9. I'm just like you. When I'm not completley hovering over my boys. But yeah, I watch from a distance too. Always have my eye on them. It's no time to make small talk with the other parents, unless they don't mind talking to someone who will not make eye contact with them!

  10. I know I'm more of a Helicopter Dad, but I'm working on my transition to at least Helicopter/Satellite Hybrid. Our kid is way more active, younger but also larger than other kids his age, so I feel like I have to be pretty vigilant, but I also want him to play, get into a litlte mischief and interact with kids without my constant immediate presence. I see a lot of parents on the fringe who probably consider themselves "free range", texting away, oblivious and of course it's only a matter of time before something happens (sand, running off, etc.)

    Helpful post to make me think about my place in the kid's world during playground time.

  11. Thanks for yet another parenting label. At least I can use this one!  I think I have been mistaken for a free-range parent before, but I'm definitely a satellite (I actually pay attention to my kid and interact with him). I will definitely add this moniker to my vocab when dealing with helicopters and free rangers.

  12. Thanks for yet another parenting label. At least I can use this one!  I think I have been mistaken for a free-range parent before, but I’m definitely a satellite (I actually pay attention to my kid and interact with him). I will definitely add this moniker to my vocab when dealing with helicopters and free rangers.

  13. Definitely a good phrase for it.  I find it an ideal style.  And my kid is safe and learning self-sufficiency.

  14. Definitely a good phrase for it.  I find it an ideal style.  And my kid is safe and learning self-sufficiency.

  15. Love this. I'm more of a free range – but with silent hawk-like mommy instincts. I can swoop in and no one will know where I came from. That being said, I had 4 kids on purpose so I can give the "Am I my brother's keeper? Yes I am!" speech right before they run off to play. Helicopter Siblings rock!

  16. “Contrast these parents with what some have called the “free range” parents, who find a nice picnic table or spot in the shade and take a breather while the kids are running over each other and throwing sand in each other’s eyes.”  This is exactly the same thing we saw happen the other day at our tennis/pool club.  

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