Folks! This guest post is by Laura Vanderkam, author of All the Money in the World:What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending, out today from Portfolio!
You Can’t Helicopter-Parent Three Kids by Laura Vanderkam
Having a baby changes everything. Having three in four and a half years? While that was common in the 1950s, when the average American woman had nearly four children, it’s a lot less common now. But hey, I like to be an overachiever. At least on the fertility front. Because, as I learned this fall after bringing my baby daughter home from the hospital, when it comes to raising kids, having three little ones will throw any perfectionist tendencies under the bus.
When I only had my oldest son, I fretted about using television as a babysitter. Now that I have three kids, I literally use it as a babysitter, parking my oldest two in front of a video while putting the baby to bed on nights I have all three on my own. The kids are no longer at risk of being overscheduled. I decided not to sign my oldest up for indoor soccer this winter because I couldn’t bear to deal with the logistics of getting him to practice 20 minutes away on Wednesday afternoons. If he was an only child, I might worry about him being behind on his skills. As a mother of three, I’ve realized that starting one’s soccer career at age 4 has absolutely nothing to do with how you’ll turn out in life.
Trying to keep track of everyone in the house, I’ve started to see that one reason 1950s moms let their kids wander around all afternoon is that it was too hard to keep tabs on that many kids all the time. Smaller families make it possible to plan and monitor a child’s every move, and that possibility makes people think they should. If everyone had four small kids, leaving the three younger ones in the care of an 11-year-old while you ran a quick errand to the post office wouldn’t seem so nutty. Whatever can go wrong is probably not nearly as bad as what can go wrong with four small kids tromping across a parking lot.
And what can go right? Well, here’s the thing. When you have lots of little ones, more hands helps. So teaching an 11-year-old responsibility in small chunks sounds pretty smart. It’s a skill many 11-year-olds these days — who are left with sitters themselves — don’t pick up. As for the little ones, with less parental monitoring, you learn to be flexible. Yes, someone just put you in your brother’s pants. No, you might not get your favorite TV show or story tonight. But being resilient and having an internal locus of control — the belief that you are responsible for making your way in the world — is not a bad lesson to take away from childhood. It’s certainly better than thinking your mother should show up with you for a job interview. I can barely remember my own professional appointments these days, let alone someone else’s.
In short, you can’t helicopter parent three kids. True, I probably won’t let the kids wander around 1950s style. I’m actually not so sure about letting an 11-year-old babysit (even if I did at that age). But with three, I can see this: you just can’t follow each one around on the playground. So it goes — you can’t follow them around through life either. And it’s good to learn you can make the swings move on your own.