“I’m such a helicopter mom,” a friend said to me as we watched our 7-year-olds race around the playground. She kept shifting her position every few minutes to be within a few yards of her son. Occasionally, she’d call to him to not climb so high, to slow down, or to remember to include his friend.
“I’m a life raft mom,” I replied, only half-joking.
Of course, I had an eye on the playground and was looking over at my son every so often. But for me, this outing was going fine.
My son, who has ADHD, was running around having fun. He was talking to his friend about a made-up playground game the friend likes to play, not just about his own intense interest in trains. And he was safe.
That was good enough for me.
Raising two kids who have autism and learning and thinking differences means my priorities are different from those of other parents. Of course, if my kids get in over their heads in any situation, I’ll jump in a minute to help them—that’s the life raft parent in me. But unlike my helicopter parent friend, I don’t try to solve problems for them before they happen.
While I’m tempted to make sure my kids never experience conflict or discomfort, I fight that impulse because of their issues. I know that I’m not always going to be there with them to think through how to deal with different circumstances. So, I need to make sure I’m letting them find their own limitations, within reason.
For instance, when my sensory-avoidant younger son is in a loud restaurant, I let him decide if he needs his noise-canceling headphones. And if my older son is happier being by himself at home, I don’t tell him he needs to invite friends over.
Making those decisions for my sons wouldn’t be fair to them.
What I try to do is constantly re-evaluate what’s most important for my boys to experience in different circumstances. I help them identify what’s crucial to be successful, and what can fall by the wayside.
Insisting on uncomfortable dress clothes at family gatherings? No way I’m fighting that battle. They can wear (their cleanest) comfy clothes.
Leaving a movie early because it’s too loud for my younger son even with those noise-canceling headphones? I’ll follow his lead, even if we spent a bunch on the tickets.
Saying no—and not apologizing—for turning down field trips or outings my sons don’t want to go on? Those are waters I’ll jump into.
Ironically, when my life raft instincts kick in, I can be even more protective than a helicopter mom. If my son doesn’t want to do something, has tried his best to say no in a way that keeps his dignity and doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, and is still struggling to be heard, it’s time for me to jump in. Otherwise, I stay out of the decision.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I don't still secretly wonder what it’s like to be my “helicopter mom” friend.
Does she enjoy being able to get involved with her child at such a deep level? If I were able to do that, would my children be better off or happier? Who can really say my style of parenting is better?
Right now, being a life raft mom is the best I can do. Frankly, it’s all I have the energy for. It’s what my kids know, and it works for us. But I might just ask my friend what life looks like from the helicopter.
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About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.