Helicopter Parenting Is So Over: Welcome Satellite Parents!

06/20/2011 By Shawn Burns

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.