Much has been written about helicopter parenting, the name given to the parenting style of “hovering” around children constantly, foreseeing and removing obstacles from their paths, making decisions for them and anticipating their every move. 

While the drawbacks of helicopter parenting are fairly easy to see for school-age children and teenagers, who need to be growing in independence and responsibility, parents of toddlers might miss similar risks of hovering over their own small children. These risks can be hidden by the immediate and obvious need to keep toddlers safe and protected. Child safety devices, such as outlet covers and stairway gates, are necessities during this stage. Parents must keep a close eye on what their child might put in her mouth, to protect her from dangerous substances and objects. It helps that adults are about three feet taller than their toddlers and usually quite a bit quicker because, at times, they do need to function like helicopters.

Let Your Child Take the Lead

There are other times, however, when a more appropriate parental role is to be like a sidecar, the small car attached on one side to a motorcycle and used to carry packages or a passenger. (Riding in a sidecar is a thrill for many a motorcyclist's friends and family members, who could experience vicariously the spirit and adventure of the biker.) Sometimes, a parent needs to let the child take the lead and drive the motorcycle while the parent rides alongside. 

A toddler needs much in life that that she can get only if her parents are willing to supervise, rather than over-restrict.

Toddlers need the physical exercise they can get only in a wide open field where they learn to walk along, to pull toys behind, to begin to run and to kick a ball. They need to be allowed to climb stairs and to wiggle through small spaces.

Room to Explore

A child needs space to explore. Toddlers need the physical exercise they can get only in a wide open field where they learn to walk along, to pull toys behind, to begin to run and to kick a ball. They need to be allowed to climb stairs and to wiggle through small spaces. A child who is trailed by a parent at some distance learns that space and freedom are welcoming and exciting rather than dangers to be feared.

Choices

Around the age of 1½ to 3, the child is beginning to see herself as separate from others. A good way to support this developmental milestone is to let her choose her activity. Making several toys and play structures easily accessible and allowing the child to choose, instead of deciding, “Now is a good time for Emma to play with her blocks,” is an example of parenting like a sidecar rather than a helicopter.

Positive Power

One reason for the tantrums and power struggles that are such a normal, if exasperating, part of toddlerhood is that young children really do have a developmental need to exert their own power. The more we can let them experience “positive power,” within limits, the less likely they are to engage in power struggles. If you bring your toddler to the park to play on the equipment but she is more interested in examining the anthill by the bench, follow her and support her interest. By taking the sidecar role, you are showing your child that you value curiosity and exploration.

Opportunities for Independent Thinking

Because they live in an adult world, toddlers usually are being guided and told what to do next. Parents establish a child's routines for mornings, mealtimes and bedtime. It is important for toddlers to get used to these routines and to learn to follow instructions. However, routines work best when they allow time for the child to be the director. If she is playing with a doll, you can resist the impulse to say, “Can you feed the baby?”—which is managing the child—and just sit back and wait to see what she chooses to do with the baby.

When a child finishes with one activity, many parents are all too ready to suggest the next. Rather than say, “Why don’t you play with the fire truck?” try saying, “You’re done playing with the ball. I wonder what you will do now.” The American Academy of Pediatrics notes the importance of letting a toddler choose her activities, because children will select the ones that are challenging within reason (HealthyChildren.org). These activities might include finding objects, sorting things by shape and color, and playing make-believe, all of which are important cognitive exercises for a young child's development. 

Why is it that parents tend to act like helicopters when the sidecar role would be more helpful? Often, the reason is that we are operating out of fear rather than caution.  In our own lives, when we allow fear to dictate our actions, we usually are not putting our best selves forward. With regard to our children, when we react out of fear without considering the real needs of the situation, we are not doing our best for them, either. It is much better for toddlers if parents give them the freedom they need to develop physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively within limits determined by the real needs for safety rather than a parent's reactive fears. 

If you find yourself too often feeling like a helicopter, remember to take a step back from being hyper-vigilant when appropriate and enjoy a fantastic ride in the sidecar. A great deal of the exhilarating joy of having a toddler is found in experiencing the world through your child's eyes.


Maureen L. McElroy, M.A., is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program, which offers classes and workshops to parents of toddlers through teens. PEPparent.org