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I Can't Help But Be a Helicopter Parent

Photograph by Twenty20

Last month, an unavoidable run in revealed something alarming about how I parent. My children have never met my dad, but during my sister's wedding, I couldn’t avoid them being near him. The experience was difficult for me because we have a hurtful history and I didn’t want to approach the topic with my young daughters.

That whole weekend revealed just how hard I work to protect my two daughters from pain or suffering. I spent so much of my time trying to prevent them from contacting him or avoiding conversation about who he is because I am not ready for their innocence to be spoiled by the realization that not all dads are good dads. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain to my preschooler why they technically have a second grandpa, but his hurtful choices keep them from having him in their lives.

Even though I never felt they were in danger, I did feel like the whole experience would be difficult for them to understand. So I obsessively intervened any time he approached them—all weekend long.

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This habit of overprotection repeats itself in my life in the way I mother. Actions as small as turning down the radio if a difficult or sad story is on, hiding in my room if I need to cry over sad news or stepping in quickly if someone at the park is being unkind all point back to the same bad habit: I work too hard to protect my children from the suffering in this world.

I suppose wanting to give your children happy lives is a normal desire, but I am not sure it's a completely healthy one.

My love for them is so deep that there is nothing I want more than to give them a world that is magical and kind, a world that is without sadness or pain.

Even though my actions are motivated by love, I am not so sure it is actually a loving way to parent. Sure, it is my job as their mom to protect them from harm, at least while they are young and in my care, but harm and sadness are not the same thing. Sadness is a natural part of the world we live in and by shielding my kids from it I paint an unrealistic picture of how they will experience adulthood, or even their first day or school. When I do this, I keep them from growing into emotionally healthy adults who have learned to respond appropriately to the negative aspects of their life.

I also know that by protecting them from sadness, pain or disappointment, I am sending a message about certain emotions. My actions suggest that sadness is not an OK emotion to experience, that it should be avoided instead of experienced as part of life. I know that raising emotionally healthy children requires teaching them how to experience and express all emotions and to accept them, instead of avoiding the ones that make them uncomfortable or feel bad. Still, I keep returning to these same actions. I keep avoiding difficult topics or strategizing about how I can navigate their days and their lives away from the pain in the world—like how I handled my dad.

I am certainly still on the fence with whether or not I want him to have a relationship with my kids. I feel that, with time and my own healing, it will feel more appropriate to share with my children who he is and why he is not around without working so hard to protect them from the hurtfulness of his decisions. Ultimately, whether or not he has a relationship with them feels more reliant on him than me and his ability to choose a less destructive lifestyle, so only time will tell if he will ever be a part of their life.

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It's frustrating that protecting my kids from so much has become a consistent habit in my life. How do I loosen my grip? How do I allow them to slowly and naturally learn the lesson that life is full of beauty and disappointment? Where is the balance between protecting them from harm and overprotecting them from the life lessons the accompany disappointment or sadness?

I suppose wanting to give your children happy lives is a normal desire, but I am not sure it's a completely healthy one. I really want to do a better job of stepping back and letting them experience life as it occurs more naturally, but I'm still learning how to loosen the reigns.

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