Even helicopter moms can learn to let go

Memories of my childhood include plenty of unsupervised time for exploration and adventure. But my children are having a very different experience. Were things really that different when we were kids or is it just parents who've changed? For today’s parents, it can be challenging to let go a little.


If you crossed the street from my childhood home and wound your way around the elementary school, following the border of the field to the northeast corner, you found the source of great summer happiness.

We always arrived prepared, with empty glass mayonnaise jars, reserved just for this purpose. We would quickly shed our sneakers, roll up our pant legs and make our way over increasingly soggy land until we reached the edge of the swampy stream, feeling the muddy ground squish between our toes.

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There, at the water’s edge, bursting with anticipation, we carefully waded in, jars in hand. We knew exactly where to find what we were looking for — pollywogs.

Gently, we would immerse our jars in the water and capture them, in awe of their tiny translucent bodies, and quickly screwed on the covers complete with air holes.

Pollywogs are amazing little creatures and we would watch them for hours there on the edge of the swampy land. There was something about those not-yet-frogs that delighted our 7-year-old selves.

I am so grateful for those lazy afternoons spent watching our catch. Those memories there on the soggy grass are some of the most vivid from my childhood summers.

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One of the most amazing things about being a parent is the intense desire to see your children experience the same things you did as a child.

Yet, this suburban, overprotective, borderline-helicopter mom shivers at the thought of my children having this same experience.

There’s an area not far from our home that catches my attention every time I see it. It simply screams “perfect pollywog catching site.”

But every time I filter my own childhood experience through my adult mind, it’s flooded with words like unsupervised, dangerous, bacteria and drowning.

On a recent walk, I shared my story with my husband and he told me a handful of his own — stories of being a kid, exploring the world without parents nearby, controlling and sanitizing everything.

We were both struck by the paradox between just how much we cherish those memories and how much we fear for our children venturing out on their own that way.

I came home and Googled pollywogs and was surprised to see that you can order them online. They arrive with their entire habitat and everything that you’ll need to care for them throughout their life cycle.

I sat there, staring at the computer, struggling to decide how I felt about that. There, before me was a way that I could share that fascinating experience with my kids, yet somehow it just isn’t the same. The anticipation, adventure and exploration are all removed from the experience it seems.

I’m not sure what the answer is here. Did our parents know something that we don’t or are things just different now?

"One day, I want them to look back and have their own adventures and memories to share with their children."

Though I won’t be sending our kids off to play in any swampy water, it does make me wonder if perhaps I need to find a way to let go just a little bit.

One day, I want them to look back and have their own adventures and memories to share with their children.

What childhood adventures did you have that your children haven’t experienced? I can’t be the only one who struggles with this.

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Comments on "Practicing gratitude: Childhood exploration meets helicopter parenting"

Sara June 11, 2012 | 8:33 PM

This is the exact reason we bought a camper and have it parked at a campground all year long... its our "getaway" just about every weekend, since we really can't afford big family vacations. I like the fact that my boys are out exploring nature, fishing, etc. and not in front of a TV or video game. I think the only thing that is different now from when I was growing up is the media/internet... we hear so much more about kids getting hurt, abducted, drownings, etc... I don't ever remember hearing about stuff when I was a kid and I'm only 44 years old. I'm sure all that bad stuff still happened... it just wasn't in your face!

Katie June 11, 2012 | 5:31 PM

I grew up in a house that was smack in the middle of the woods. We were out there all day long playing with no parents tagging along. And when I was Eddie's age, my mom let me play alone in the back yard. I would wander to the neighbor's house for "pink milk" (strawberry nesquick...remember that?). I have started letting Eddie play outside alone. But every time he goes out we go over the rules. I say "what are the rules?" and he says, "stay on grass" (that is if he sees a car, which he never does because we live on the dead end), "don't go past the mailbox on my bike" (that would be the boundary for bike riding: from mailbox to dead end), "and don't poop on my bike" (thank GOODNESS he does this on the potty now, but it's still a rule...ha ha!).

Shannon June 11, 2012 | 4:03 PM

It really is amazing, and sad, how times have changed. I remember riding my bike with my dad through a huge desert behind our house when I was little. This desert is now more houses. We used to build and shoot rockets and go hunting for lizards. My kids, unfortunately, will not be experiencing this as the city has grown so much. I hope to find other adventures for them as they grow.

Elizabeth June 11, 2012 | 4:01 PM

I was always in the creek catching critters! I left on my bike in the morning, and my mom had no idea where I was all day. I just had to be home by dinner. This is not the world my daughter is growing up in, and in many ways that makes me sad. I think the world has changed, and parents have had to change with it. I still let my little one explore; she just has more constraints than I did. We currently have a tank full of pollywogs in our kitchen. We caught them from our neighbor's yard and are going to try to raise them to frogs and let them go. I don't think it matters exactly the path my daughter took to get to the experience, rather that she gets to have it.

Miranda June 11, 2012 | 3:44 PM

Loved this, Nichole! I grew up spending summers on my grandfather's farm. It was possible to go hours without seeing either of my grandparents while I did whatever it was my little imaginative heart could think to do. And yet, I find that even though we live in a quiet, secluded house, I can't let Joshua explore the back yard on his own. (He is, however, several years younger than I was, so that's part of the difference.) I bristle at the parents in the neighborhood who let their kids ride bikes unsupervised while they stay inside in the air conditioning and think "Don't you know something could happen!!?" I have serious issues letting go.

Cameron June 11, 2012 | 2:26 PM

I have to say, living near enough to the house I grew up in, where my parents still live, is such a blessing, because there I do let him play on his own by the stream, I do let him stretch himself and get dirty romping in the wooded area near their yard, and as he gets bigger, I'll let him go farther because it's good for us both. I love that he knows the pleasure of chucking rocks in a creek and what waterbugs look like up close, even though our busy suburban street with its small, fenced-in yard doesn't allow for that kind of adventuring.

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