Betty Duffy

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Hover Mothers

Part 1
Part 2

Now that I am a parent, I have become aware of the specific pitfalls of applying an adult consciousness to child's play. If screen time has been the root cause of a recent decrease in unstructured outdoor play, it's parental screen time rather than childhood screen time that carries heaviest blame.

While one used to hear the occasional horror story about kids falling out of trees, or drowning in swimming pools, or about the occasional wiener flasher on a rural road, TV and mass communication have opened parents' eyes to exceptional terrors that can befall our children.

Amber Alerts expand our awareness of missing children from a relatively small local radius, to a national one, increasing in our minds, the incidence of missing children. Nightly news reports the local and global body counts. Crime shows and movies can plant previously unheard of fears in a mother's mind. No parent wants to send their children off to play in a woods where creepy men may rendezvous on their lunch hours, or where tweakers carrying automatic weapons guard their portable meth-labs.

Pornography is not just the elephant in the closet in many homes (where any users are likely a known entity), it's also the elephant charging around the playground. Mothers, aware of pornography's widespread use, and the often youngish appearance of its subjects, suspect any man on or around the playground of having ulterior motives, that as soon as mom turns her head, some porn-nurtured perv will pull up in a window-less rape vehicle and spirit her children away to auction them off to some third-world monarch. (Though on a brighter note, since pornography is more likely to be stashed online these days, the screen-deprived unsupervised child is much less likely to run into someone's stacks of Playboys than they were twenty years ago.)

When we moved to our current house, we came from a neighborhood where I used to lock myself and my children inside for our safety. My children were younger then, and I had fewer of them, but I was most certainly a hover mother. I remember giving my in-laws (who had raised five children of their own) a list of guidelines for the handful of times I let them watch the kids. I did flashcards before my babies could walk. I sprinkled wheat bran on every meal. I stood at the playground and pushed the swings. I followed toddlers up and down the ramps onto the jungle gym. I schooled my husband on attachment parenting. Looking back on journals from those early years, I was very proud of the way I mothered, but I was also mostly miserable.

Hover Mothers tend to burn out, and after four kids, I dreamed of an environment where less might be required of me. I wanted to bring down my internal level of alert.

We immediately fell in love with our new house, its three bedrooms and five acres surrounded by cornfields and with a park across the street. We knew the interior space was small, but we believed that our children would be outside most of the time, so it wouldn't be an issue. Almost immediately after our move, however, I discovered that I had only traded one set of dangers for another.

Days after our move, my daughter, who was two at the time, escaped from the house and wandered out to the street. I was nursing a baby to bed; my husband was bathing the boys. Both of us thought the other knew where she was. And neither of us knew she could open the door. A woman passing brought her back, and we thanked her, relieved that the worst had not happened. I felt glad that we had chosen a nice community where people look out for one another.

The following Monday, I received a knock on the door, and I felt a little frisson of excitement that perhaps another neighbor was coming to welcome us. It was, however, Child Protective Services. I had to let them into my house, view my children, and examine my housekeeping, then answer their inquiry as to what happened. There was a weakness in our new-found fortress that we had no way of foreseeing or preventing.

After the home visit, our case was unsubstantiated, but no one had ever questioned my parenting up to that point. I had never questioned my parenting up to that point. I thought I was a great mom, the best mom. But the bottom line is that I wanted reprieve from the continuous state of alert, and as soon as I thought I had it, my child fell into harm's way.

I felt a little depressed after that. Would I spend the rest of my life in a continuous state of alert? Would even sleep become a taboo? Sometimes I didn't know what was worse, that my child had been in danger, or that everything I thought our family, and I especially, did well, was brought to question. And what kind of a parent would I have to become in order to keep everyone safe, while also not allowing myself to drop into a state of psychosis?

sorry, this keeps getting longer... to be continued...


Kimberlie said...

I am trying to become a "recovering hover mother." I am actually letting my kids go outside to play and ride bikes on our street without the need for me to be out there supervising. We live in the burbs and the street is not that busy but there aren't sidewalks. I'm trying to get over it. I want to get over it. Because frankly, I am tire of being on constant alert AND having to continually be my children's activity planner.

I read a book earlier in the winter called Simplicity Parenting and the author, whose name escapes me, advocates lots of unstructured play.

I want to let my kids roam and explore and just be kids. But the judgement of others, and the fear of DHS knocking on my door is I let my kids roam, keeps me from feeling free. And keeps me exhaustingly on hyper-alert.

Sally Thomas said...

Re the roaming, though I'm a huge believer in unsupervised play, I set pretty definite boundaries and rules regarding where people can go, how far, and when. I've always let our children play outdoors, and once they were through the toddler stage I never watched them *that* closely, as long as they were in our yard. I do have one son who at 3 and 4 liked to hide, and he scared us to death a couple of times, but basically the boundaries were pretty impregnable (big fence, latched gate). If they were out front, I watched. And I could always see them out of the tail of my eye -- I just wasn't outside with them, making them conscious of being watched.

I've started giving larger-roaming privileges around age 10. When we moved to our current town, I allowed my then-10-year-old son to walk to the library and used bookstore and other businesses on the square, just a couple of blocks from our house. It's a quiet town, no busy streets to cross, and he was a sensible kid, and that seemed okay.

On the other hand, in our former city, I would not let my older daughter at 10, 11, or 12 walk alone or with a friend to the corner shopping center, because there were always people hanging out in the parking lot in what seemed like questionable ways, and that didn't feel right. So a lot depends on context as well as age. I think in general, though, fewer people bat an eye at kids over ten getting themselves around, and that's not a bad age to start. I wouldn't stress out too much about not turning a younger kid totally loose in the neighborhood, even though as a person who grew up in the 60's and 70's, that's certainly the level of freedom I had.

My oldest daughter is now driving, not to mention getting ready for college, and it has occurred to me that as a parent you are acclimatizing a person to be independent on that level eventually. This daughter is a good and pretty confident driver -- yesterday she went to see a friend several towns over, which involved getting lost and turning around several times, but she made it without too much of a flap, apparently. She has friends, meanwhile, older than she is, who have never driven on the highway, or else who don't drive at all, at 20 or 21, because they're afraid. I always wonder about the correlation between that fear and the levels to which those people were sheltered and protected as children.

JMB said...

All these decisions about how much freedom to give to your children (I think)is subjective to your own personal situation. A few years back a NY writer (Free Range Children)caused quite a controversy when she wrote that she allowed her then 11 or 12 year old son to take the subway alone from Bloomingdales to their apartment. Interestingly enough, it was the "out of towners" who freaked out. Anybody that was familiar with the situation knew that it was an easy one stop ride, in broad daylight, in midtown, etc.

I live in a very Mayberryesque type of town. From 3rd grade on your children can walk home from school for lunch unescorted. There are no buses, sidewalks galore, crossing guards. The homes are close enough together that if a parent was away and jr threw a keg party, all the neighbors would know. The downside, of course, is everyone knows your business.

So my children walk into town and hang out at the local pizza joint. They walk to and from school by themselves. I'm comforted in knowing that at any given moment, friends of mine will spot my kids and let me know if they are misbehaving. I like that teenagers can be in public and not hanging out in someone's basement.

This summer my two daughters (14 and 11) are flying solo to Europe and staying with an old family friend. I'm not worried about it at all. I know they'll be fine. I don't want them to be afraid of the world and what is out there. And hopefully, all the little freedoms that they have had will come in handy for them.

priest's wife said...

I hover...but hopefully not so closely...

Melanie B said...

I'll admit I'm a free-range parent at heart and it's really only fear of busybodies who'd call CPS that would keep me from giving my kids free rein. When they're older, I mean. Right now my oldest is 5 and going out in the front yard by herself is the limit of her freedom.

I'm the one on the playground not hovering but slightly worried of what the other moms think of me as my not-yet two year-old is climbing about by himself while I'm distracted by the baby or three year-old.

My husband is the worrier. He worries that I'm not paranoid enough, that I don't watch them closely enough.

Owen said...

"'s parental screen time rather than childhood screen time that carries heaviest blame." This is true and not limited to porn and the focus of the adult screen time. One can kill parenting spending to much time even on morally good web locations.

But when I think to a day long before internet and my own childhood, wow, we free range roamed everywhere and Mom never thought anything of it as long as we showed up for meals and after school. Wait, what do I know, maybe she worried like mad.

When our kids were young and we were in rural communities we didn't worry so much as when we moved to the city and they were still young. Not saying that was wise but the city, the downtown, drugy, diving part we lived in (when working with an inner city church) made us worry, a lot and we really tightened the reigns. I didn't have a computer then.

The Cottage Child said...

I hover, though it's diminishing. I've left my daughter's home alone while making the 15 min. round trip to p/u my son from school, that sort of thing. Our neighborhood is nice, but the community standards make it difficult to feel comfortable even taking a walk - loose dogs, distracted driving and speeding, etc. I don't see sending my kids out into this neighborhood w/any level of comfort.