Notes from An Overprotected Childhood

Hi Readers: This letter is from a woman whose mom was way more helicopter than most — an extreme case. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale and she sent it here to endorse the Free-Range movement. Here’s wishing the writer, and her mom, a very happy and liberating 2010. Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I really wish that I had a free, happy childhood memory to share, but I don’t. I grew up in the ’80s and my mother was obsessed with keeping my brother and me “safe.” She was a total helicopter mom, even though that term wasn’t used then. She watched us every second she possibly could. I was never allowed to go over to any friends’ homes because their parents could be child molesters. My mom didn’t like other children in her house, so they weren’t allowed to come to our house, either. She was a bit more lenient with my brother because he’s a boy and I’m a girl, but not much.

My brother and I grew up confined to our back yard and had only each other as playmates. Eventually, I stopped going outside completely, pretty well bored of the tiny yard. I was a stereotypical fat kid. My mom wouldn’t even let us go very often to play with our own cousins, thinking that they were too “rough.” Every newspaper item regarding a child that had been abducted, raped, or murdered was thrust into our faces with the same phrase, “See? Next time you want to complain, you should think about this kid!”

I love my mother very much, and she did teach me many things that I am forever grateful for, like the value of a dollar (I’m the only cousin in our family who has never had a problem with credit card debt) and how important reading is (she never denied me any book I ever wanted to read). The lesson I could have done without? That every person you meet will probably try to hurt you in some way.

I am now 26 years old and I have never had a real friend. I am very grateful that I am alive today and have never been seriously injured, but it sure seems like there was an awfully high price to pay in order to guard against something that seems so unlikely to me now that I am older. I can’t completely escape her influence, and I may never be able to. I hope that this website can reach many parents and show them how to let their kids have more freedom. I’ve never had a serious physical injury, but I’ve had all kinds of emotional illnesses. I think I would rather have had a few more bumps and bruises. They heal a lot quicker.

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29 Responses to Notes from An Overprotected Childhood

  1. Nancy December 31, 2009 at 12:20 am #

    You are lucky that you are reasonably self-sufficient, all things considered. My best friend growing up was super sheltered too (but she didn’t come over to my house for a variety of reasons, the first of which was that I was ashamed and the second of which was that her mother was more than aware that my dad had a violent temper-but this also meant that I had a lot of ‘sleepovers’ at her place at odd times.)

    I have no doubt her mother loves and loved her. I do have a big problem with how she’s turned out. She never had to experience want, fear, failure, independence, lack of attention ect. She engaged in some highly risky sexual behavior, had a child with a man who probably should have been outright neutered (he seriously wondered why the Kennedys didn’t get out and swim) and is now in some serious financial dire straits, some of which are the result of bad luck, but many of which are the results of bad decisions based on perceived needs.

    As said, I’m more than grateful to her and her mother… they were honestly a lifeline to me as a kid…. but I’m not so sure anymore I’d want to trade childhoods.

  2. Tracey Rollison December 31, 2009 at 12:45 am #

    What a story. I am trying hard not to be like your mom!

  3. Ivy December 31, 2009 at 1:05 am #

    What a sad story. I thank the writer for having the courage to share her experiences.

  4. Teacher Tom December 31, 2009 at 1:34 am #

    I’m so sorry to read this.

    A therapist friend of mine once said (after a few drinks), “Of course, it’s legitimate to blame your parents for what’s wrong with you, just as long as you give them credit for what’s right with you.” I like that the writer acknowledges her mother and her mother’s love even if she now feels crippled by her upbringing.

    What’s done is done. Knowing the value of a dollar and being well-read are not small things. And, in a strange, very difficult way, her mother taught her how to be a better parent than she was. And by telling us her story, she is helping us all be better parents as well. I’m grateful she shared her story.

  5. Joe December 31, 2009 at 2:37 am #

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. KateNonymous December 31, 2009 at 3:14 am #

    Thanks for sharing your story. I think the most remarkable thing is your ability to see the good in many of your mom’s lessons. With so many restrictions, lots of people would have trouble seeing other ways in which she had managed to teach you things that are valuable.

    Good luck with your life. It sounds like you work hard at questioning the assumptions that were drilled into you, and I hope that as more time passes, you find it easier to take the goodness of others for granted. It sounds like you work really hard at that, and I hope you succeed.

  7. Michelle The Uber F***n Frau December 31, 2009 at 3:39 am #

    Thanks for sharing the story.

    I can kinda relate somewhat. I have agorophobia, was bad when I was young, hardly ever went outside other than to school. Didn’t help that my parents were protective of me and extra nosy about who I wanted to hang out with, but almost nothing with my bro or sis. What sucked is I was the responsible one compared to them, they skipped school, got into trouble with the law, underage drunkeness, etc etc. You’d think they’d have more trust for me, eh? PFFFFFFFT!!!

  8. B. Durbin December 31, 2009 at 4:54 am #

    To the writer of this letter: Perhaps the smartest thing you can do at this point it to do something that scares you. Maybe that’s moving to a different state. Maybe that’s taking a class in something you’ve always thought looked interesting but you think you’ll be no good at. Maybe it’s getting a gym membership. Or taking a confidence course with strangers and trust games and zip lines.

    I was in grade school with the same classmates for five years. When we were getting ready to go off to junior high, I was going to a different one. All my classmates said how sad that was, and verbally I agreed with them… while in my head I was thinking what a good thing it was. I was the low-status kid, not because my classmates were mean (especially by kid standards) but because I’d gotten in that habit and I somehow knew that by changing my situation, I could break out of that.

    I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not saying it’s a complete solution, but try something new and different and scary.

    My best suggestion is a national park. Go and visit and take some hikes. From your description, it would be completely different, not very objectionable, and easy to explain to over-protective types. And besides, they’re beautiful.

  9. LoopyLoo December 31, 2009 at 5:06 am #

    That’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

  10. sylvia_rachel December 31, 2009 at 5:08 am #

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    I think it’s wonderful that you can see and acknowledge the positive aspects of your mom’s parenting. That’s something I struggle with in dealing with my father’s extremely poor parenting (extremely poor in unrelated ways) — I have to try really hard to see the up side. And, heck yeah, the emotional illnesses take an awful lot longer to heal — and they complicate your life more, too, because they’re hard for other people to see and understand.

    I also struggle to make new friends, not because I was helicopter-parented but because I’m a raging introvert. Once you’re out of school, it’s really hard — work is not the same. The thing I’ve found works best is to get involved in some group activity that I enjoy — not for the purpose of making friends, but for the purpose of enjoying the activity: doing something you love (in my case, singing in a choir) puts you in a happier frame of mind and at the same time increases your chances of meeting people with whom you have something in common, people who might well eventually turn into friends.

  11. bequirox December 31, 2009 at 6:20 am #

    As far as not having any friends, I think I have some tips:
    Like a few people have said, try something new. Take a community ed class, like belly dancing (they’re generally all girls so you don’t need to worry about guys judging your appearance).
    Make an effort to introduce yourself to people. At the grocery store, say hi to someone. My husband likes asking strangers for their opinions (i.e. which color do you like best?). These kind of encounters probably won’t turn into friendships, but they can help you get over your shyness.
    Be the kind of person you want to meet. Be friendly and fun and it will attract those kinds of people to you.

    I really hope you can find a way to handle your problems, and thanks again for sharing with us.

  12. rachel December 31, 2009 at 6:40 am #

    The writer’s remarks about her difficulty in making friends really touched a chord with me. My parents (who divorced when I was six) were blessedly free-range in some respects (like this reader, I read all sorts of things from an early age), but there were also some respects in which they over-sheltered and over-controlled my brother and me. One of the most harmful, in the long run, was their failure to model strong friendships or to support us in cultivating strong friendships. Both of my parents were, for perfectly reasonable reasons, on strained or distant terms with their own siblings. Neither had more than one or two close friends in the years of my childhood and adolescence. We seldom visited anyone other than relatives. My parents invited no one to their homes. We were discouraged from having other kids over to play, and on the rare occasions when we did, my parents and stepmother failed to behave hospitably; I was once rebuked for serving a glass of ice water to a friend who biked two miles to see me on a hot summer’s day. My mother was usually pleased when I got invited to other kids’ birthday parties, but my father was invariably resentful. He’d drop me off late and pick me up early. The isolation was suffocating.

    In the years of middle childhood and early adolescence, I found it extremely difficult to make and keep friends. By high school, I was doing much better, and as an adult, I’ve done pretty well. But I still struggle with some aspects of friendship: I am uncomfortable entertaining in my own home (I got no practice as a child), I tend to wait around for others to make the first move, and I often worry (irrationally, a close friend tells me) that I’m in the way in social situations. My brother seems to have similar problems, although he does have a couple of cherished long-standing friends. I wish we had both gotten more practical experience of friendship as children.

    I am happy to report that both of my parents seems to have better social lives at 60 than they did at 30 or 40. I know it’s easier to support close friendships when one isn’t caring for young children. But I also think that both of them would have been more relaxed, more sensible parents if they’d had more exposure to other people’s ideas and more emotional support in the years in which they were caring for your children.

    My plea, then, to all the parents who read this site (I’m not a parent– yet– but I love the site anyway) is to do your best to preserve your close friendships, however harried you are, and to model strong friendships for your children. Kids who learn early on to be good hosts, to be good guests, to make the first move in a friendship, to quarrel and make up and move on, will be stronger and happier for the rest of their lives. And you’ll be happier, too.

  13. Bernadette December 31, 2009 at 6:42 am #

    You don’t have to escape your mom in order to escape her influence! And at age 26 it’s not too late to make some changes – big changes taken with small steps. Find a good therapist. Look for a book called “Your Best Year Yet”. It’s a great time of year to make some resolutions for change. Look at the year past. What did you do? What limited you? What do you want to do? How have you benefited from the limitations? Don’t believe your life is over! Mid to late 20s is a great time in life to reinvent yourself and head in the direction you want to head! I hope you keep us all posted.

  14. DJ December 31, 2009 at 9:00 am #

    For a second I thought I was reading my own story! My parents were the same way, no sleepovers for me either and my family moved around a lot which made it worse since people were always new/unknown and couldn’t be trusted. UGH. Luckily I was able to escape, I spent most summers with my cousins who lived out of state. That was the only real childhood I had. Riding our bikes all over town, sneaking into places we shouldn’t have been, getting lost in corn fields, having crab apple wars. Without those experiences I don’t know what kind of person I would have become. I guess I could say I had both childhoods and I definitely vote in favor of the free-range. I have my own daughter now and would never shelter her that way, there’s some things kids just have to figure out on their own.

  15. Miki December 31, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    While some people might say it is great that you acknowledge what your mother did for you, and I do agree to a point, I hope that you can put some distance between the two of you to start your ‘growing up’ period. At 26 life is full of wonderful chances to take–especially if you do not have children. I fear that if you were close to your mother she might not understand your need for independence. Take the classes, put yourself out there. Yes, you might get hurt once in awhile. That is life. But you will experience things important to find out who you are.
    Your mother will be around for awhile. Take the ten years back that you need for you and then re-connect with her.
    I live in Japan and my mother and I have never been closer! Distance helps.

  16. sarah December 31, 2009 at 9:37 am #

    Kids learn by exploring and interacting with the world, they build confidence through experience – stories like this one are just tragic! How can a parent think they are doing anything but harm to their children by preventing their natural desire to learn about their environment?! I hope this story will give other overly cautious parents food for thought…

  17. Steve December 31, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    A classic book about friendship ( that has sold over 13 million copies worldwide) and has changed many lives for the better is:

    How to Win Friends and Influence People

    by Dale Carnegie

    You can find it in any library and it’s been in print ever since its first printing in 1936. There are 594 five star reviews of this book at Amazon.com which attest to its enormous impact.

  18. erica December 31, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    I want to hug you. Thank you for sharing your story. Perhaps a helicopter parent will read this and step back a bit. We all want to protect our children. A friend of mine was molested when little. Amazingly enough, this person is not a helicopter parent. Knowing someone who was molested makes me more wary of family members and people I know, rather than strangers. hmmm.

  19. Jan S December 31, 2009 at 1:08 pm #

    Thanks for sharing. I guess we all have imperfect moms. My mother wasn’t a helicopter mom. She had other deficiencies that maybe your mom didn’t have though.

    I hope you are able to find healing and spread your wings. Your mother sounds like she has a lot of fears.

    On making friend or not, I’m not sure helicopter parenting is a deciding factor.

  20. Mojo Mom December 31, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story. This is a stark example showing the downsides of not giving kids real-life expeirences–something we should talk about more, and are–thanks to Lenore’s blog.

  21. NJMom January 1, 2010 at 12:19 am #

    I love that you love your mom! Her parenting was positive in many ways, as you are a well-educated, thoughtful, and introspective young woman. You have lots going for you….

    However, your mom is a nutcase and needed/s professional help.

    Now is the time for you to take baby steps away from her and toward developing your OWN freerange life. That’s what growing up is all about.

  22. jim January 1, 2010 at 12:36 am #

    Singing with the choir here – this letter should be stapled to the cover of every copy of “What to Expect…” sold. My sister and I were also sheltered/ kept very isolated and given no preperation for adulthood – not so much because our mom was protective, but because she was/ is a psycho manipulative control freak who has absolutely no idea why she is completely estranged from both of her adult children and has almost no contact with her grandchildren. (Parenting tip: if you want your children to excell, reminding them at every possible opportunity well into adulthood that they are losers and failures who will never amount to anything, not to mention disappointments to their perfect parents and a disgrace to the family name, may not be the best approach.)

    Lots of good ideas here. Especially from bequirox’s husband. Since you are a reader, here’s what I do to work on my still-wretched socialization skills: whenever I visit my favorite used bookstore and spot a fellow compulsive – age, gender, and race are irrelevant; we can spot each other yards away – I recommend something right in front of them and ask what they have read recently that I would like. I’ve met a lot of wonderful passing-in-the-aisles friends-for-a-moment that way.

    Mid-20’s, as mentioned, is a good time to re-invent yourself. Trips to national parks are one idea – another, which really undid a lot of 18 years worth of damage for me: the military. (AirborneVet, where are you?) Unfortunately, we are stuck in an illegal, immoral war of aggression for corporate gain and this is not an option I can recommend any longer. However, it is worth pointing out that only one member of the Coast Guard has been killed in Cheney’s Quagmire and a few years of small-boat search and rescue (not to mention just graduating from boot camp, which isn’t as hard as it is made out to be) would do wonders for your self-esteem and socialization skills.

  23. Renee January 1, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    Thank you for the letter.

    In any other blog comments would be of the sort, ‘At least your mother cared about you’ ‘You should be so grateful she wanted to protect you’.

    Great advice to remember in one of the first posts,
    “Of course, it’s legitimate to blame your parents for what’s wrong with you, just as long as you give them credit for what’s right with you.”

  24. sueg January 1, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    Bless your heart, honey! I know this echoes the comments of many others, but TRULY–look into community ed programs! Pottery, or dance, or book club, whatever. When my children were young, I took a ceramics class. I was absolutely horrendous, but what therapy–both in working with the clay and in chatting with others in the class. Maybe some volunteer work? I am currently an adult literacy volunteer, and the woman I tutor speaks primarily Spanish. It doesn’t matter that I speak very little Spanish and that her English is broken–we communicate well enough, and have a good time talking to one another. It’s more about the conversation. We enjoy a good laugh now and then about how different our interests are, and when we fumble for the right words to communicate.

  25. Nicola January 1, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    As so many others said, thank you for sharing your story.

    Until I found this site, I was a lot like your mom – heading down that road. It was such a drag being like that, too. I can honestly say that the older my kids got, the less I even enjoyed being a parent. I felt trapped by all the “advice” and by the stares of other parents waiting on you to be a “good” parent… in short – I let other people tell me what to do and what was good for my kids instead of realizing I knew in my heart what worked.

    When I found this place it was like a cold shower. That very same day, I let my kids outside without me for 20 minutes with a watch and a time to be back. Yep… 20 minutes. They were so excited about the things they did and I was so petrified until they showed up. It clicked as I watched them talking at 90-miles-a-minute, their eyes lit up, their cheeks flushed from running – I had completely forgotten that what they had just partaken in was what my whole childhood was… outside!

    Now – they’re outside roving for 2-3 hours at a time. They come and check in and I let them back out (I figure I’m teaching them trust – come home when mom tells you, you can get more time outside… it works). By giving myself some breathing room, them some breathing room, and everyone a little sanity, my kids are more responsible. They know they can talk to neighbors (but not go in anyone’s houses unless they ask me first), they are able to handle their own arguments and disagreements with their friends… it’s just what they needed. Myself – when I realized I didn’t have to be hyper vigilant, I was able to relax and enjoy my kids being kids.

    Tangent over… I swear. 😀 With you – you’re not old. Get out there and take those baby steps to reclaim your life. Your mother did do things wrong, I don’t know any parent that is ever perfect, but we also have it in our power as children of non-perfect people to break the cycle and go our own route. It takes courage, but you have that given that you told us your story.

    Best of luck to you. You can do it.

  26. Sitti January 6, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    I completely understand what the author went through because I went through the same things myself. In addition to being over-protective, my mother, the dominant parent among the two was completely caught up with a highly stressful job and financial obligations (My father was barely there during my childhood and is financially irresponsible)

    She didn’t have time to be nurturing and to take time off to get to know my needs and soothe my fears, in other words to become a mother. Most of my childhood, I only remembered cowering from her temper; when I got messy, spill something, etc. However, I am never allowed to do a lot of things. I didn’t go out at all and was very bored.

    When I got into kindergarten and primary school, I had very little confidence. Before, I never had to deal with making friends or know how to handle mean peers. I got so nervous and most of the time embarrassed that my eyes began to tear up (despite trying hard not to). Because of this I was constantly bullied for years.

    My mother never knew about the bullying.

    The good thing about being raised in such an environment is that I became harden throughout the years. I became tough, am very good at pushing myself and now rarely cries. However, I didn’t realise recently that inside I was still scarred until I stayed at my boyfriend’s grandma’s house for the weekends.

    During that time, all his uncles and aunts gathered along with their babies and toddlers. It was loud, of course, but I also noticed the love and affection and how gentle they handle their children and how good these children are. I felt that I was missing a lot of things, from sleepovers to the warmth of hugs.

    This family is an inspiration as to how I would want to raise my children in the future. Today, whenever I address my childhood issues with my mother, she makes up a lot of excuses. It frustrates me. So I stopped and just focus on my future and the freedom that I have now.

  27. BirdyMama February 24, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    Thank you. It helps hearing the stories of others who’s parents behaved in similar fashion. I’m 27 and have found, finally, that I’ve spent the past 10 years distancing myself from that… traveling in Europe by myself at 20 and 24 (much to my mother’s distress), breaking from my family’s religion, learning, moving across country, raising a child by myself. It’s taken having my daughter for me to realize what I was running from. Now, I’m faced with seeing my mother in my parenting, an even scarier thought. I found that I have to fight my own instinct so that I’m not the helicopter parent (ironic, isn’t it!). But, baby step by baby step, I’m becoming the person I’ve always longed to be, and hopefully, the parent I always longed for.

  28. DLEB April 18, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    Sorry to hear about your emotional childhood abuse- I can relate with my own overprotective childhood. My parents were focused on television and wealth and based our family around these things. We lived in a ‘gated neighborhood’ -the gates always reminded me of imprisonment and that’s how my mind felt. Where the prisoners lock themselves in. Sometimes I wonder if they realized my brother and I had minds to develop and were not just bodies for my mother to feed and buy things for and fawn over. And keep inside and keep busy with mind-frying television or tag along to the grocery. I now see that she tried to live through us as reflections of herself. Father didn’t talk to us all that much; always working then home to eat, watch TV. They would fight when they acknowledged each other, and the dinner discussions usually centered around judging the few people they knew or some negative news story. They never taught me how to do anything for myself or make my own decisions, and now I feel emotionally and socially crippled with no skills to speak of. My mind feels rotted by years of TV and video games and computer and lack of social interaction. I filled my head with I think they thought life and raising a child was all a ‘Leave it to Beaver TV show.’ The message was always ‘the outside world is dangerous; don’t trust anyone but us.’ They never had real friends for me to model friendships after and my social skills are flat. I had a few friends in my youth but I distanced myself after being sent to another high school. I’m 21 nearing 22, and I feel like a mental child, a cripple, not knowing who I am or what i want out of life. And I guess I allowed them to do this for some of the time, so I guess I share in the fault.

    -Message to anyone considering raising children– show love, let them earn the things they have through hard work, teach them life lessons,show them the importance of reading and creativity music art anything, make them play outside with other kids often, allow them freedom to play creatively, and limit television use as much as possible(or consider doing without it). It rots minds and molds them into mindless consumers! Help the child become his own person and eventually a responsible adult.

    (Sorry for the complaining, but just want to warn others from the effects of overbearing parents.)

  29. ami May 26, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    wow -My childhood was the same. My brothers where allowed to go outside and play (only after age 12) and thast age 14 for me as I was a girl. I was never allowed to invite friends over (if I did and it was rare we would have to stay inside and I would be skitted for not being allowed to go outside). It annoys me that my mum and dad can tell me stories of playing with other children when they where young and thinks it ok to deney me that fun. Im 20 now and moving out net month – cant wait to see that real world!