A Case for Hands-Off Parenting

I was just reading the cover of the October issue of Chicago Parent. My editor friend Tamara sent me a copy because this is the first month of their re-design. The cover line “The Art of Hands-Off Parenting” intrigued me. It happens to be a day that I purposely “forgot” my cell phone to avoid a call from my youngest daughter, who is a freshman in college. I knew that if I had the phone here, I wouldn’t have the willpower to resist answering if she called.

Am I a mean mom? I don’t know. Maybe. But here’s the deal. She’s a college freshman. Last night she texted my husband and told him that she was supposed to have finished a book today, and she was working on a paper for another class. She didn’t finish the book, and she knows that I have read it. She said she might call me today to “talk about it.”

OK, I love discussing literature. I have an M.A. in English Literature. But a discussion can’t happen unless both parties have read the book. I believe that’s called a “lecture,” and, believe me, I’ve done my share of lecturing when I taught college English courses. I’m not at all opposed to spouting my opinion as anyone who knows me can tell you, but this is different. I want my child to learn to manage her own time. I know she can analyze literature and come up with ideas that are far superior to mine. And, if she had read the book, I would have been more than happy to discuss it with her. (But not at work. That’s another thing that my kids know – wait until after work to call unless it’s really, really important.)

But, because I have practiced Hands-Off Parenting (I love that term) through the years, I was able to leave my cell phone at home and let my daughter figure out how to handle her own problem.

Despite my extreme worry over whether they’re getting enough sleep, eating right, meeting the right people, I know that I really can’t control any of that. I also know that because I didn’t do their homework for them, or their science projects, or try to choose their friends, or tell them how to dress, that they all make really good decisions. While I guess it could be kind of gratifying if they called me every day to interpret their world or explain how I would analyze a poem, I really glad that they don’t. I’m glad that they’re discovering the world on their own, making their own decisions and their own mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong. Guiding, helping, supporting, setting limits are all important parenting roles. But what happens if we are constantly interpreting the world for our children, and providing every possible support so that they never hurt, never have to figure out how something works, or never learn to overcome failure. Life just isn’t one big End Result. It’s a process. (Remember all those clichés about life as a road?) It’s hard to practice hands-off parenting. Really. I find it much more difficult than helicopter parenting. But try it. It works. My daughter even finished that book she was supposed to read without any prodding from me. And she told me she finished it because she liked it – for the sheer pleasure of reading.

Categories: Editor’s Blog