“The Helicoptered Kids are Pretty Darn Perfect, and My Free-Rangers Are Falling Behind”

Readers — Here’s a letter I just got from a fellow journalist I’ve met a few times, and like:

Dear Lenore: I hate to say this but I think the helicopter mommies are right. Now that I am seeing kids in college who grew up this way, I have to admit they are pretty darn perfect. They are getting into the best schools, they are well behaved, they are kind and smart and lovely, they are getting great jobs (oh yes, with their parents’ help but hey it’s working for them!) and they never seem to get into trouble.

I thought I was doing the right thing by letting my kids take the subway at age 10 and go to Europe alone at 16 but I don’t feel like those real-world things are helping them do well in areas where society seems to care most – you know, things like SAT scores and where they go to college. Sigh. And of course the helicoptered kids do eventually learn to take the subway, even if it’s a few years later than mine did.

Signed, Wondering if Everything I Hold Dear is Wrong.

P.S. Some day can you please do a blog post on this?

Dear Wondering: Before I launch into a whole thing about Free-Range, just remember that whenever we compare our kids to anyone else’s, we never know the whole story. So try to resist.  And now — my response:

Teaching your kids to take the subway and travel to Europe isn’t all you’ve done for your kids — or all that Free-Range is about. It’s about encouraging their curiosity, independence and self-reliance, all of which can go hand-in-hand with being a good student, or not. But it certainly goes hand-in-hand with being  a young person at home in the world rather than wary of it. And if you want examples of a Free-Range childhood leading to a “pretty darn perfect” adulthood, consider Richard Branson, founder of Virgin. On page one of his autobiography, he writes about his mom making him walk a mile home…when he was four. When he turned 12, she asked him to bike over to his uncle’s, 50 miles away. The confidence his mom had in him and the confidence he developed in himself formed the bedrock of his success.

This doesn’t mean helicoptered kids won’t be successful, too. Most kids of all stripes eventually are, even if at times they are floundering. (We all flounder!) Free-Range Kids have no reason to be less polite or hardworking than helicoptered kids, because Free-Range isn’t about neglecting, or never disciplining them. It’s just about letting them know that they are not in constant danger, and that we believe in them gradually making their own way.

That’s what seems to be the sticking point right now: You’re wondering if you can believe in your kids.

It sounds like at this particular moment, you are wishing you’d hovered over every book report and forbade every afternoon at the park, because you imagine your kids would be very different if you had. But from where I sit  (and this is why we can’t compare kids!) there’s still no saying what your kids would be like. Successful? Resentful? Grateful? Suicidal? We have no idea.

But I do hold likely that if your kids could navigate Europe, they will eventually navigate the working world. (And once they do — write back!)

So if you are wishing you had “created” different kids, all I can say is: We don’t create them. We don’t even know the “best” way to raise them, because (drum roll) there isn’t any.

Free-Range  does not create successes or failures. It does not create good or bad students. All it does is remind our kids and us that they are not in constant danger, that we believe in them AND the world, and that failing  isn’t the end. It’s part of the process.

Which, come to think of it, is a good thing for you to remember right now, too. – L.

Do only helicoptered kids succeed?

Do only helicoptered kids succeed?


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89 Responses to “The Helicoptered Kids are Pretty Darn Perfect, and My Free-Rangers Are Falling Behind”

  1. Karen December 2, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Not being rude, but to the person who wrote that letter, maybe those kids are just smarter than your kids? Really no disrespect intended! But even helicopter moms do not always get their kids into the best colleges. But know this – not only do some not get into the best colleges but they can’t navigate a subway either. So you got one up on them.

  2. Forsythia December 2, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    I’m not raising my kids to be good students who let others direct their lives. I’m raising them to be independent and know how to make their own way and their own happiness in life by THEIR OWN MEASURE. These “metrics of success” are not really appropriate measures of anything other than validating the world view of the people who decide them, and the parent’s bank accounts and connections. Then again, I think it is criminal that the “success” of high schools and administrators is measured as how many kids enroll in 4 year colleges, rather than how many kids were appropriately assisted in making good choices as measured by their personal say so ten years on.

  3. LisaS December 2, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    It may just be that you have perfect friends with perfect children. I tried the helicoptering thing and had none of those results, and multiple anxiety attacks a day because my son would not conform, be nice, polite, successful, etc. I backed off, and while the tangible results are no better, at least I’m a failure without all the effort and strife. It’s all about what you want in life. I decided to find less perfect people to spend my time with, and that has helped.

    So far as best schools, etc. … read David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. Or just listen to the TED talk. all of that stuff is about what you do with it. Impoverishing myself to send my son to the “best schools” wouldn’t make either of us any happier.

  4. Trudy W Schuett December 2, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    Lenore, I think your friend has missed the point. Not everybody needs to go to college to be successful, in fact for some it’s no more than an expensive waste of time. If her kids know how to do things that uncomplicate their lives and make them happy, (as they probably do)then that’s what’s important.

    It’s not her parenting style she needs to question; I’m thinking it’s her expected and desirable result that’s no so clear.

  5. Warren December 2, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    Yes yes, they are perfect. But the helicopter moms will not tell you any of the negative, they only brag about the positive. Like their kids success is some championship the parents compete for.

  6. Hellen December 2, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    FYI not everybody cares where you went to college. You could go to Harvard but if you are a crappy employee no one will want you. So there is a lot more than SAT scores and ivy league schools involved to be successful. I wonder also if I were more “helicopter” or “tiger mom” if my child would do better in school. But there is more to life than books and A’s. I want my child to be a happy, productive member of society doing whatever he decides to do. We try to give him a well rounded education supporting his interest from Roman military history, how to skin an animal, build a shelter, learn to play a bugle. Who knows where he’ll end up or what his version of successful will be. I want his journey to have stories of great experiences.

  7. JaneW December 2, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    1) It depends on just how intensely they are helicoptered. Ones who are closely guarded and held to high academic standards, but gradually granted freedom through their teens, they usually do fine. However, the children of the more intense helicopter parents may crash and burn when they get to college because they were NEVER taught life management or time management skills.

    2) Working at a community college, I can tell you the most important thing is NOT where you are at age 18, it’s figuring out what you actually want and having the tools to get there. Different parents can reasonably disagree about which tools are most important.

  8. Emily December 2, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    Okay, maybe helicoptered kids do better in school than free-range/less-helicoptered kids, but that doesn’t mean they do better in life. Case in point:

    -The boy who lived across the hall from me my first year of university, who graduated from high school with a 93 percent average (I was a high B student who could have been an A student, if I hadn’t participated in so many extra-curricular activities). Anyway, when this boy arrived at university, he had no idea how to care for himself, lived like a slob, and spent his days dealing drugs instead of going to classes. His mother had no idea. When he got sick, she CAME TO TAKE CARE OF HIM, and also to make sure he was going to his classes. I ran into her in the hallway, and she told me all this, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. Anyway, I didn’t see him at all after that first year.

    -My friend from first year who became an R.A. in second, and hosted a “laundry workshop” early on in the year. I told her that she might not get a big turn-out, because I’d learned how to do laundry when I was ten, and I assumed that most people were the same. I went to the event anyway, to support my friend, and for the free cookies, and it was packed. She went on to host the same event early on in third year, and again in fourth, with similar results.

    -The boys in my building (in third or fourth year) who cooked a roast chicken for dinner one night, but didn’t know that chicken isn’t supposed to be pink in the middle. One roommate ate a piece of the undercooked chicken, and gave himself salmonella.

    -My close friend (in the first three years, anyway) who’d had a loving-but-sheltered upbringing, and a ten o’clock curfew all through high school (or maybe it was a bit later, but it was very rigid). When she got to university, she got involved in a relationship with a guy who was having unprotected sex with other girls and lying to her about it. That didn’t end well, especially since he was in our program, so they were stuck seeing each other in choir, etc., for the next three and a half years after they broke up.

    -My brother, who got slightly better grades than I did in high school, and went to a more highly-acclaimed university than I did, but only because my mother hovered over his homework every night. When he got to university, he ended up going through three different majors, and finishing behind schedule.

    -Myself, whose mother preceded Thanksgiving break with horror stories about how I’d likely get sexually assaulted by a strange man at the bus station on the way home and back to school, which made me so afraid of that happening that I travelled home with a small water gun filled with diluted hot sauce (makeshift pepper spray) in the pocket of my hoodie.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is, just because helicoptered kids might do better filling in the correct Scantron bubbles in order to gain admission to Prestigious, Overpriced Designer University (although, there are no S.A.T.’s in Canada; it’s just done by grades), that doesn’t mean that they’ll do better when they get there, and it doesn’t mean that they’ll grow up to be happier, more successful, etc., than kids who are allowed more free reign, even if some of the free-rangers end up at Smaller, Less-Popular University. I actually went to a Prestigious, Overpriced Designer University after that, and I liked it there, but I wouldn’t say it was better than the smaller one that I got myself into by (mostly) doing my own homework. I had a math tutor in grades ten and eleven, but I still did my own work.

  9. Liz December 2, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Let’s ask the business owners, managers, or even co-workers of recent grads. I worked at a cut-throat, competitive corporation for over a decade, and helicopter kids never got the jobs, and if they managed to fake their way into an internship or position, they were loathed by all. No one has time to meet THEIR needs, and they have many. They are very insecure, they will lie and fake their way into social circles and up the ladder, but everyone sees through it and they are not respected. They only work hard when being watched. They get other people to solve their problems and take credit for it. They steal ideas because they don’t have any. And their career goes nowhere. A lot of their flaws could be forgiven, except they lack the most basic work ethic, which makes them essentially useless in the workplace.

    According to the writer, they are getting the jobs. But wait a few years…the free range kids will be replacing them and they will be back living in their parents’ basement.

  10. Jen December 2, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    I love this. My daughter is 13 and extraordinarily lazy! I know that lazy and teenager are synonymous, but she seems to go above and beyond “normal”. She is also highly opinionated and VERY vocal with those opinions, regardless of the company. Am I raising a thoughtless adult? I am scared for her future. She has aspirations of being an artist, a medical examiner, a writer, but she can’t get her chores done.

  11. Linda December 2, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    My brother has two sons who were born less than two years apart. Their mother was the quintessential helicopter parent, hovering and micro-managing every aspect of their life. My brother wanted them to learn to be independent and capable young men. In their early years, they were perfect — good grades, etc.

    Now, the older son is 20 years old and barely graduated high school. He works sorting recyclables in the small town where they live. He always welcomed his mom’s doting ways, letting her do every little thing for him with school and with life.

    On the other hand, the younger son is finishing up his first semester of college. High school was a blast for him because he applied himself in his studies and in sports. He welcomed his father’s advice and wisdom.

  12. Betsy December 2, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    I’m guessing your friend was just having a weak mommy moment. It happens to all of us. You’re cruising along, feeling confident in your instincts and “philosophies” then, bam, blindsided by doubt in the face of seeming flawlessness, and in the face of the relentless message that there is only one true definition of success, $$ and or recognition, and the subsequent panic and self searching that often follows. Then we remember, just as you said, we aren’t creating anything. Cultivating, nurturing, hoping and praying, maybe, but ultimately, we’re passengers on this bus.

  13. Malcolm December 2, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    This is a classic case of Survivorship Bias. This concerned mom is comparing her successful kid to other successful kids. Although she can see the successful helicopter-raised children, she is not able, from her vantage point, to see the less successful helicopter-raised children.

    Rather than worry that her kids are not like the others, she should be happy that her kids found their place around other successful people.

  14. pentamom December 2, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    Two things: I really like Malcolm’s point about survivorship bias. The other is that getting into a good college and being a polite, engaging young adult is only the BEGINNING of success. I marvel at the oft-swallowed idea that getting IN to college or even graduating is the sum of success in life, and all other life challenges will be pieces of cake after that. You could flip your concern around and say that even if your kids do not get into Top Prestige College at 18, you have confidence that you have equipped your kids to succeed in life in ALL the ways that matter. For example, teaching your kids to use the subway at 10 is not only about teaching them to use the subway. Someone learning the subway at 10 has learned something significantly different from the person who lacks the confidence or the ability to work things out on his own that makes him unable to do it before 22. As of age 22, they’ve both learned to use the subway, but 10 year old independent rider has a ton of things in his toolkit that 22 year old first-time independent rider doesn’t have at his disposal. The things kids learn in a Free Range childhood are only partly about the skills they’re allowed to learn earlier; they’re at least as much about the ability to learn and function on their own, period, which is qualitatively somewhat different than the kind of knowledge that is acquired when an older person learns to do the same thing at the “right” time, at least much of the time.

  15. Emily December 2, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    I forgot to mention, I agree with Karen. There are many other measures of “smart” and “successful” besides grades in school. Suppose the free-ranged, helicoptered, and middling kids (because “free range” is a spectrum) were sent on a camping trip, or an orienteering excursion, or a city-wide scavenger hunt in a large city that tests life skills like asking questions (bonus points if it’s in a place like Montreal, that’s heavily francophone), following navigational directions, and taking public transit. Suppose the kids were challenged to cook a meal for their families, and it had to be “real” food instead of Kraft Dinner or frozen pizza or similar. Those kinds of tests might not tell anything about how much these kids know about, say, how to graph a parabola, or dissect the theme of prejudice in Romeo and Juliet, but they’re a much more accurate measure of how the kids will do in the real world, once they’re adults.

  16. Lola December 2, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    I don’t want “perfect” kids. I’ll settle for happy ones. (Happy as in “fulfilled”, not just smiley-happy)

  17. Emily December 2, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, my mom’s “sexual assault” horror stories were just before my FIRST time travelling home for Thanksgiving. After that, I realized that there was nothing to be afraid of, so I didn’t bother filling a water gun with hot sauce before travelling for any of the subsequent holidays.

  18. lollipoplover December 2, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Parenting is the ultimate DIY project and successful “outcomes” are not as easily measured by SAT scores, colleges, and first jobs. There’s so much more that goes into growing an independent, capable adult. To compete against other parents for the stepford college grad is of no interest to me. All my kids have unique interests, viewpoints, and personal goals and who am I to keep them from pursuing things that make them happy?

    Of note on getting jobs for your kids: I received several *perfect* resumes for a management job placement I was working on- great grades, internship, multiple degrees. I also received two phone calls from the mom of a top candidate doing follow up on the next step in the interview process. She was very polite and clearly wanted the best for her son, but when I questioned her why her son wasn’t doing his own follow up, she said he was very busy and she helps him out. She was miffed that I confronted her on her involvement in her son’s life, which maybe it works for him but wasn’t what we needed for this leadership position. The job eventually went to a candidate who financed all of her college education (at a state university) and was highly involved in a local charity but had no experience. I think she’s still at the same company but has been promoted.
    Sometimes people look really great on paper. Don’t be fooled.

  19. Shannah December 2, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    Jeez. I don’t want my kid to be “perfect”. All that means is that he would be living up to someone else’s expectations and choosing a path someone else has determined to be the “right” path. I want my child to grow up and find his OWN way. I have no dreams of him graduating, making a 2400 on his SAT and going to college for 4-6 years to major in medicine or law UNLESS that is what he wants to do with all of his heart.

    If you child is going against the grain and making their own way, GOOD FOR THEM!! They are WAY ahead of the game!

  20. Andi December 2, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    I am a community college instructor and let me tell you what college faculty think of some helicoptered kids. We call them “Precious Snowflakes” and this is not something you want to be called. Many (not all) helicoptered kids are a pain for us because they are used to having adults do things for them. They need their hands held and they need extra help. They have trouble finding out basic information on their own, and they whine when they don’t get things their way, or when we don’t make exceptions for them when they miss deadlines, etc. Their parents sometimes intervene when their precious offspring are upset, and by law we are not allowed to discuss a college student’s work with anyone, even his or her parents. (Parents, it’s time to let go!) Not all helicoptered kids are like this, but it’s ridiculous how many young college students these days are so dependent on others and can’t manage on their own. At 18, they should have many basic life skills under their belt and should be more self-reliant and resourceful, whether they go to college or not. Helicopter parents, you aren’t doing your kids any favors by helping them so much. You are only working to satisfy your own insecurities and fears.

  21. Gpo December 2, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    My oldest is in 7th grade. She is an A student. We rarely get involved in her studies. We haven’t for a long time. We don’t check her homework before she turns it in. She only asks for help about twice a quarter. She has learned to get her homework done and has clear expectations. Our expectations are for her to do her best. My kids have chores around the house that they do. Most of the time they do them without being reminded. I could care less what college my daughter goes to. I could care less what she does for a living. My only rule is that you support yourself. If she does that I figure I did a decent job. I am counting the days until my youngest gets out of the house. I am not the type that has to live through my children. Or tell everyone about their achievements.

  22. Jill December 2, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Check back in 10 years and see who is back living with mom & dad. Most likely it will not be the free range kids.

  23. E December 2, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    I appreciate the poster’s candor. It’s difficult to navigate as a parent in a world that’s very different than one we grew up in 1 generation ago. And that’s not even talking about helicopter vs. free range. My social viewpoint was probably different than that of my parents, but the communication methods were basically identical (face to face, via wired phone, written) and that’s been blown out of the water now. And that has spilled over into every other aspect of life (including academics)

    It’s difficult to discern if you are hovering/helicoptering or not participating in the manner that supports your child best academically in today’s setting (assuming your kids go to school). I felt completely unprepared/ill informed when I realized that the math class that my kids were placed in 6th grade, dictated how they’d advance thru math/science for the rest of MS and HS, for example.

    I have 2 kids, same gender, and very different outcomes thus far post-HS. So, given that they were raised in the same environment, I do accept that much is human-specific.

    But even realizing that, it’s hard not to second guess.

  24. E December 2, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Oh and also, our parents didn’t know the GPAs and College Acceptances of every other kid we went to school with or lived down the street. This type of stuff used to just get told to Grandma or Aunt Nancy. Now it’s posted on Facebook.

    It’s one of many reasons that I ditched Facebook 2 years ago (was originally on it when my youngest wanted to join and the condition was that we were “friends”). I decided I didn’t want to know a lot about people with whom I was just an acquaintance.

    If the Mom in the post is getting overwhelmed with all this type of incoming info, I’d suggest quitting FB or muting/hiding all the people who fall outside of close family and friends.

    Successes (AND failures) can be shared with family and close friends without FB or Twitter, just like when we were kids. 🙂

  25. Coccinelle December 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    “Not everybody needs to go to college to be successful, in fact for some it’s no more than an expensive waste of time.”


    I would also add that the pressure to go to a good college (or to manage to go to ANY for some people) seems to be tremendously stressful for some and I’m pretty sure that that amount of stress is not good. Especially for people that are at that vulnerable age. I know one teenager that is close to distress only because she struggles with mathematics. If the system is made in a way that nobody who can’t master a high level of mathematics can be a successful part of the society, something is wrong with that system. You don’t need to be able to do derivatives to be happy in life, or I highly hope so.

  26. lollipoplover December 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    What’s missing is how do the actual children view their success? Mom can evaluate her choices compared to her friend’s choices but how much input (college choice, job field) was determined by the parents who are paying for it?

    I dated a guy who went to a great college but was told by his parents that he could be either a dentist or a lawyer. Pick one and we’ll pay for that degree. No other majors considered. Maybe some folks are proud of their son the dentist (and maybe he is a great dentist)but I just don’t see the need to compare my kids who are just starting out their adult lives to the others pursuing different careers.
    It’s like who kid crawled first…it means nothing.

  27. pentamom December 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    “when I questioned her why her son wasn’t doing his own follow up, she said he was very busy and she helps him out.”

    This is just insane. I do some stuff for my kids because I have time for things that they don’t, that some folks around here would probably frown on. But getting a job is BY DEFINITION something someone has to do for himself, because the person pursuing the job is the one who is going to be doing it, and actually telling a prospective employer that the kid is too busy with other things to attend to pursuing the job for himself — the mind boggles at how stupid that is.

  28. Papilio December 2, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    This reminds me of this whole review of secondary education and the educational system in general that has been in the paper last week or so. People often say it’s all rubbish, compared to most other first world countries it’s not, but many Asian countries score better.
    And then someone said to keep in mind those Singaporians (English?) come to Europe to get an idea of how to educate children while still letting them be themselves and develop their own skills and hobbies etc, and also encourage creativity.

  29. K December 2, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    “I thought I was doing the right thing by letting my kids take the subway at age 10 and go to Europe alone at 16 but I don’t feel like those real-world things are helping them do well in areas where society seems to care most – you know, things like SAT scores and where they go to college.”

    Eventually, things like experience and references matter more in terms of where your kids end up than SAT scores and college brand names. And what you don’t want for your kids is that they end up being the college student I interned with one year: We were both suburban kids, probably 19 or 20, interning in NYC. I took the bus in every morning, which conveniently dropped me off right at the door, and she was driven by her dad (he was commuting anyway – no real problem with that, it made logistical sense). We were asked to go to a different location one day, and given the address and the name of the subway stop where it was located. She looked blankly at our supervisor and said, “Uh . . . I don’t really know how to take the subway.” Just as suburban as she was, I said, “I haven’t really taken the subway much either, but I’m pretty sure I can figure out the map – do you want to go together?” and ended up having to go way out of my way the next morning to meet her on the Upper East Side just to escort her to Queens. I am certain I came off better in that interaction and made a better impression on our supervisors. I later used that internship experience and the recommendations I got from those supervisors to transition to a full-time career in that field.

  30. Becky December 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    Getting good grades has little to do with whether your parents helicoptered. It has to do with native intelligence, a willingness to conform to the rules of traditional schooling, a natural affinity for standardized testing, a satisfactory selection of extra-curriculars, and basically all the stuff that high school counselors talk about. If you’re looking to the Free Range Kids theory to produce Harvard alumni, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Free Range Kids is about developing children who can take care of themselves in the real world, and more importantly, who have the “desire” to be out on their own in the real world without any access to their parents.

    For example, there was a woman (early 40’s) at my former work place. She’s pretty. Professional. Intelligent. Unmarried and not dating (and not happy about the situation). She still travels with her parents and her life basically revolves around them. She only recently bought a house and moved out of theirs. I have to admit I’ve never met her parents, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t of the free range variety.

    And I wouldn’t be too sure about the kids being “well-behaved”. You don’t see them at home, or at school, or at parties. You see them on their best behavior.

  31. Kim Banks December 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    I think the free-range approach also allows kids the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves, solve problems with limited direction and understand that behind each of their actions is a reaction.

    I own a PR firm and see “helicopter parented kids” joining the workforce and many of them lack the basic skills to think through a problem, put in some elbow grease to figure things out or understand the importance of not turning in an assignment on time – and I think a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that they haven’t been held responsible for many things throughout their lives. They’ve had the safety of falling back on their parents to fix whatever needs to be fixed. Interesting conversation – thanks for allowing me to participate!

  32. Muriel Dr. Mom December 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    I am going to ask my four of my 5 sons to weigh in on this. (One is severely handicapped.) Of the four remaining, 1. Who is oppositional defiant never finished college and is never employed. He looks at the rat race and says, “Yeah, I’m not really into materialism. 2. Who has a masters in Bioinformatics from RIT. He’s married and works at U. Penn and is extremely pleased with his life. He does high risk things like white water rafting, kayaking and urban exploration. 3. Never finished college but is doing debt counseling for Fannie Mae. He’s recently married and is, has always been, easy-going. I know for a fact when we pressured him in school, he got depressed. He has some learning disabilities that affect his writing. 5. Is a 5 yr Computer Engineering student at Drexel. He is in a long-term relationship and is very happy with his life. He got written up his first week of college for jumping out of a 3rd floor dorm window because he likes jumping. LOL Numbers 1, 2 and 5 have saved other people’s lives.

    Except for number 3 son, they are all defiant and would have fought back hard on helicoptering. Defiant kids are nobody’s victims.

  33. SKL December 2, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Free range doesn’t determine everything!

    My siblings and I were very free range. We were born in a working-class family, both parents worked, we were latchkey kids. With our parents at work, we had to cook the supper and take care of the babies from the time we were in elementary school.

    We also had a lot of opportunity to do whatever we wanted. We made mistakes. We wasted time. And we did cool things.

    In high school, my brother and I took the ACT on the same day (he was 18, I was 16). He got the highest score in the school. I was third – another 18yo senior had a quarter-point more than I. Oh well! Free range didn’t give me my IQ, but it taught me the value of creativity and strategies for problem-solving. It also allowed me to read and study what really interested me, in as much depth as I desired. I learned how to teach myself successfully. I do think that had something to do with the fact that I did well in school and have been comfortably successful in life. I am not at the top of the heap, but even if we were all helicoptered, we wouldn’t all be at the top of the heap, would we?

    Some of my siblings didn’t score as high on tests. There’s test anxiety, and we don’t all have the same IQ. (Note, mine is not astronomical either.) I would note that the younger siblings, who had a more traditional upbringing, did not do as well as the elders. Take it for what it’s worth.

  34. Melanie Jones December 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Man, this really resonates with me and is a good reminder that, really, there is no such thing as a “helicopter parent”, as much as a thousand different areas where all parents are tempted to swoop in in the name of giving their kids what they ‘need’. But I don’t think a child that is well-mannered, goes to a good university, never gets into trouble (or gets caught:), and lands a good job is necessarily tied to a particular parenting style (helicopter vs. free range). We all have different resources and opportunities available. “Free-Range” doesn’t mean free-for-all. If it is tied to the agricultural notion, then we are talking about a farmer that realizes these domesticated birds enjoy being outdoors, and gives them the chance to do so when it is safe. But of course at night any farmer with any sense at all provides a safe place for the birds to roost, and deals with any threats to the hen house. Of course, I hope we aren’t raising our kids as a commodity to be consumed by the American public for our own profit 🙂 Like your friend, I struggle with wanting my kids to do well academically, because that was my experience as a kid. I felt a pang of disappointment when I found out my kindergartner wasn’t in the most advanced reading group. Even I, who leave kids unattended in cars and encourage them to play outside unsupervised, desperately want to know if my kids are well-liked and well-behaved. But I also know that my job is to love my kids like they are and support them as they grow – not freak out and have some kind of ‘intervention’ every time a comparison reveals they are ‘inadequate’ by my own or someone else’s standards. My job certainly isn’t to communicate all my fears about their ‘inadequacies’ to them. I’m afraid the inference from this article is helicopter parents invest in their children’s education and future, while free range parents just sit back and see what happens. I think all children benefit from involved, caring parents that shape their kids ethics and support their interests. The “bad” part of helicoptering isn’t being involved and providing opportunities – it’s allowing worry to cut off valuable opportunities for your kids to become independent and resourceful. Maybe not every successful child with wonderful opportunities is ‘helicoptered’ – some are just great kids with great opportunities. Worth noting, my neighbor down the street intensely helicopters her low-performing low-income son. I can think of at least ten kids I know at my daughter’s school that are clearly helicoptered and seem to be suffocating from it, and there isn’t an identifiable common academic outcome. The common denominator is they seem depressed, stressed, and emotionally ‘cut off’ from their parents…at least in my view.

  35. SKL December 2, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    I have two daughters who were adopted. One of them is a bookworm, has a good memory, is likely to do great in school no matter what I do. The other has some learning barriers and will always have to work her butt off to complete each grade. No matter what I do.

    The struggling kid has every advantage. I put her in a good school, take her to extracurriculars, work with her at home for many hours each week. I have a big stack of workbooks for her to practice those pesky math concepts. She doesn’t get much time to just chill out, but no, having more free time would not fix her problems. Nor is all that math practice going to get her into Harvard.

    Bottom line, we have to take our kids as they come and stop thinking we have ultimate control over their destiny.

  36. lollipoplover December 2, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    “And I wouldn’t be too sure about the kids being “well-behaved”. You don’t see them at home, or at school, or at parties. You see them on their best behavior.”

    I totally agree. I’ve met kids who impressed me with their good manners only to find out(usually from other kids) they were Eddie Haskells and kissing ass to the adults while behaving like weasels with kids.

  37. SKL December 2, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Well, let’s give the devil his due. Some helicoptered kids to grow up to be fine adults. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have grown up to be fine adults had they been free range kids.

    If the parents model integrity, the kids will probably learn integrity. You can mix that with any parenting style.

  38. John December 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    A parent who makes their child finish his homework before going outside to play does not constitute a helicopter parent. Nor is a parent who gets involved in their youngster’s homework a helicopter parent either.

    Assisting their children with their homework is not the same as doing it for them. Neither of my parents were college educated so when I brought math homework home that I struggled with, they didn’t have a clue so they just stayed away! I’m not denigrating my parents because I had some very good parents. It’s just that if I were a parent I would definitely take an interest in my child’s homework.

    My niece and her husband, both college educated with him being an Engineer, always checked their kids’ homework and assisted them if they needed it. Homework was family time to them. Today, my older grand nephew just graduated with a degree in biochemistry from a very prestigious school and his younger brother is a 2nd year Engineering student with a 3.7 GPA and the youngest one is an honor student in high school. None of those kids I would have considered helicoptered while growing up (They always walked to elementary school by themselves and played outside with friends without adults hovering over them).

    But as for my own kids if I had any, I would also make them either walk or ride their bikes to school depending upon the distance and I would definitely encourage them to get outside for some fresh air after school BUT not before they finish their homework! That’s how it was in my day.

  39. Scott December 2, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    I work for an engineering company and have several friends throughout related fields.

    We all have stories about how some of our new hires have parents that are too involved. Those kids may have better test scores, but they don’t test better for decision making and real world problem solving.

    A friend of mine recently had young engineer’s mother call him to discuss his raise and performance. My friend kindly told her that if she ever called him again he would fire her son. He had hired her son, not her.

  40. Caro December 2, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    Who says getting into college, or the first job post-college, is the end game anyway? Is my child self-aware? Does he take responsibility for his actions? Can he be a good partner in a relationship? Can he be a good employee? More importantly, can he be a good employee when he thinks his boss is a moron? Those are the questions I’m always asking. My kids are 4 and 2, so who knows at this point? I definitely know that helicoptering is not for my family. I was a teacher for several years and most of my students were lovely, but they were also shockingly dependent on their parents, even at 17 and 18 years old.

  41. Lin December 2, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    I didn’t read all the comments.

    Al I want to say is that raising kids is not a competition. Some of my friends are helicopter parents in different degrees and I not only hope their kids will do well in life but I’m pretty sure they will. Because kids find their own way despite of their upbringing.

    I get very annoyed when I hear some of my peers complain about the current young generation. “They can’t spell, they are selfish, they don’t make an effort for anything”, etc. I tell them it makes them sound like old farts and that we owe it to our kids to trust that they will find their own way to deal with life and the world they will inherit.

  42. Emily December 2, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    John–I know you mean well with your “homework before outside play” edict for your hypothetical, future kids, but here are some things to consider:

    1. Kids coming straight home from a six-hour school day, might not be able to handle doing MORE SCHOOLWORK right away, without some time to decompress first. So, playing outside first might actually give them more ability to focus.

    2. During the winter months, it can be dark by four or five o’clock, so, daylight during the after-school time bracket is a precious and rare commodity. So, unless you’re planning on allowing your children to play outside in the dark (at which point they might not have anyone else to play WITH, if their parents don’t allow it), then it might be better to allow outside play while it’s light out.

    Anyway, I’m not saying you should be completely lax, but maybe it’d be a better idea to amend “homework before play” to “homework before screen time,” UNLESS said screen use is directly related to homework. So, online research would be fine, but spending hours playing Angry Birds while the homework goes untouched, wouldn’t be fine. Oh, and one more thing–would you stipulate the order that the homework has to be done in? When I was in high school, my parents had to stipulate “math before clarinet practice,” because I loved music, and was good at music, but despised math. There were several holes in that rule too, but I’ll go into that later.

  43. Andy December 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    @Liz Seniors working for cut-throat competitive corporations lies and fakes their up the ladder too. They are just better in hiding it. At least, that was my experience.

  44. Ravana December 2, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    Here is the truth:

    They got great grades in school because their parents did all their research for them and wrote their essays. Then they hired tutors to teach them what they needed for the final exams.

    They are getting great SAT scores because their parents have had them take the SATs every year since they were in 6th grade. Then they hired an SAT tutor. Then they paid to have them take the test over until they got the “necessary” score.

    They are getting into the best schools because they have voluntold for every charity, sports team, and extracurricular their parents could find. Also, their parents filled out their applications and wrote their essays.

    They are well behaved. Really? When adults aren’t watching they are bullying, drinking and acting out in every way shape and form they can find.

    They are getting great jobs (oh yes, with their parents’ help but hey it’s working for them!) You said it right there, with their parents’ help. They are working jobs they hate and are usually unqualified for because of daddy’s connections. They will eventually be fired.

    They never seem to get into trouble. “Seem” is the correct term. See above about behavior. When they get caught their parents jump in and hire lawyers, arrange for abortions, threaten professors etc. Then they do remarkable coverup jobs.

    The problem is that eventually these kids manage to marry (usually someone their parents picked) and have kids and then everything goes to hell because there isn’t a single adult in the household and two sets of helicopter parents with different interests are trying to run everything from a distance.

  45. Melissa December 2, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    Does she seriously think the helicopter parents are going to broadcast it when something goes wrong? Or even less than perfect? Those are the moments we never hear about.

  46. khyamsartist December 2, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    I am part of two communities with vastly different parenting approaches. One is relaxed, non-coercive, trusts their kids, and they work on getting better at letting go. This is my family’s Sudbury School community. The other group of parents worry and hover to differing degrees, but the contrast is dramatic. They take a very protective, compassionate approach to parenting and see their children as fragile and in need of protection. Both groups love and want the best for their children.

    Knowing many children from each group, I feel as if I can make some comparisons (not in a competitive parenting way, but just some general observations about the two groups of kids). There are kids who don’t fit the mold in each group.

    The free-range Sudbury kids are fierce individualists. They get obsessed by single topics and are able to explore them at length (which contributes to their quirkiness). Many cook their own lunches in the school kitchen when they are quite young and take crazy physical risks when playing. They are, as a rule, fearless and unapologetic about who they are. They consider themselves to be social equals with adults. Their social skills are impressive. They don’t want much ‘help’ figuring things out. When they graduate, they often take some time before they decide what to do next – they will work or travel or take a few classes at a community college to see how they like it.

    The most remarkable thing to me about the kids who go to regular school and whose parents fuss about everything, is how used they are to being talked down to. When they are young they are much more rambunctious and uncontrolled than their Sudbury peers, but as they get older they are a little more withdrawn, more polite and respectful to adults, and more stressed out and worried about life. They talk a lot about homework and how busy they are. If you ask their parents how their kids are doing, you’ll often get “busy” as a (proud) reply. They are also eager to leave home as soon as they can, which seems normal in our society. They understand how the educational system works and how to accommodate it.

    As for ‘outcomes’ go, the biggest difference I see is that the free-range Sudbury kids are generally pretty frugal and protective of their time. They would rather make less money and spend their time doing what they love, even if it is outside of their work. But it seems that most of the kids of both groups eventually figure out how to work towards their idea of success. (If you got to the end of this, thanks for reading!)

  47. Jenna K. December 2, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    I might be one of the rare moms who does this, but I don’t believe that a human being’s success is measured just in their academic and professional accomplishments. Sure, those kids might appear to be successful, but are they running home to their parents for help with things they shouldn’t need help with at that age? Do they know how to do things on their own, like laundry and cooking? have they ever had a parent intervene with a professor or a boss?

    My goal in raising my kids is to raise them to be self-sufficient and accountable for themselves. If they make good grades in addition to that, great. If not, I’m not measuring my success as a parent by their grades or jobs. That’s because they are in charge of their own successes and failures in life, and that is something I hope they are learning as I allow them to be free range and take that responsibility.

  48. KLY December 2, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    Well, I have definitely seen the other side of things with helicoptered kids. The ones who do great when their parents are there, holding their hand every step, only to flop when they have to manage things on their own or go wild the moment they have a little breathing room.

    I don’t see any reason why free-ranging would NOT give the same chances for a child to do well in school, learn to behave well, and otherwise be just as “smart and lovely”, as well as successful, as any other child. You can still teach all of those things to a child while embracing the free-range attitude, which will also help them maintain that on their own. Free Range doesn’t mean dropping them off in the wild with a Swiss army knife and a compass and telling them to watch out for lions; it just means not raising them in fear and allowing them to develop the skills needed to be independent. It means believing that your kids are capable of all those wonderful things through your *guidance* (as opposed to control), rather than thinking you have to manage and protect them every step of the way.

    My 14 yr old daughter is a straight A student, in all pre-AP classes. She is in enough extracurricular activities to give me a headache just thinking about it, sometimes. However, she is already able to maintain all this with minimal input from me at this point. I rarely even ask her about her homework. I don’t have to. She schedules her own time and utilizes her own time management skills, because over the years I taught her that her academic success was HER business and responsibility, not mine. This is in complete contrast with the trends going on in our school district, where they want me to sign up for not only email updates, but for TEXT MESSAGES about each and every homework assignment my child gets. Um. No.

    The emphasis put on high scores and high grades and puffing up your college applications has gotten out of hand, anyways. They start this pressure in Elementary school, now, and by Jr High it is in full bloom. The current crop of young adults is the best educated generation, ever. Also, they lead the pack in statistics for depression, anxiety, and self-reported “unhappiness” or “lack of fulfillment”. This trend has gotten worse, not better, with the rise of parents who believe the answer is micromanaging every aspect of a child’s life, pushing to make sure they get top scores/grades and get into the “best” schools, and committing to continue this type of involvement well into adulthood. That is not what I signed up for, as a parent. I will always, always be there for my child, but to support her… not live her life for her. My job is to raise a healthy child equipped with the tools to be a competent individual with all the skills she needs to find her own happiness.

    I’ve seen her with her helicoptered peers; the contrast only reassures me that I am making the right choices. So many of her friends look like a deer in headlights at the *idea* of having to talk to people or figure things out or navigate a “real world” situation, while my daughter is able to march forward even when she’s a little nervous about it. Even with school choices, they flounder if their parents aren’t right there making decisions and taking care of *everything*, and because they don’t know how to take the initiative on their own, they actually sometimes miss out on things. Some of them actually have NO IDEA what they are really interested in, or passionate about, because their parents pick their classes and activities in order to try to help them “get into a good school”. Yeah, like *that’s* not going to bite anyone on the butt, later.

    Those people I know who are happiest and most successful in life are not all the ones who got really high SAT scores or a snazzy degree from a fancy school. They are the ones who have their crap together and can deal with real life problems without freaking out and figure out how to make things work for them. The ones who can think outside of the box and aren’t afraid to try new things. Honestly, I think the people who try to insist the other things are how you measure “success” are the ones looking for validation and trying to prove they did a better job than everyone else.

    I am fairly confident my child will manage in life, just fine. Not because she is a straight A student, but because I have been teaching her how to learn, and how to think things through on her own, rather than micromanaging her grades and such. And because I know she can navigate the world on her own and figure out what needs to be done, rather than relying on me to do everything for her. I don’t even make her hair appointments and such, now… she is a big girl and can call and figure that stuff out herself, and if she needs to find out information about something she wants to do, she can call and ask. If she has issues with something going on at school, I will give her advice, but I expect her to start learning to communicate on her own when she has a problem.

  49. anonymous this time December 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Good Lord, stop comparing yourself to other mothers and stop comparing your kids to other kids. The road to misery and depression is paved with comparisons. Focus on what you love, what you want more of in your life, focus on supporting your kids to have more of what they value in their lives.

    I feel sick remembering how it was for me back in the days when my mind was overrun with a narrative comparing myself to others. It was a well-meaning voice, I suppose, but it nearly killed me.

    We are trained to judge ourselves and others mercilessly. We are told that judgement is what motivates us (hence, “grades” and “awards” and “punishments”). We don’t know what else there is besides judgement, but there is something else: empathy. Compassion. And joy.

    Here’s hoping you and your kids find it, WEIHDW.

  50. Ann December 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    I can relate in a way with what your friend was saying. I wouldn’t exactly call my parents “free range” but they definitely weren’t the type that pushed and demanded anything throughout my high school experience. I took the bare minimum of required classes along with a lot of electives, and secretly laughed at the kids whose parents were making them work their butts off in advanced classes and take SATs and who took them to visit universities. Then…a visit to the college counselor in my senior year snapped things into focus. I was nowhere near ready for any kind of university, and by then I actually was starting to get interested in going. My parents were all, “Just go to junior college – work your way through!” Which I did, and I hated it. The other kids there seemed stupid, the work was super easy and I excelled, but floundered because it was so boring. I was envious of the kids I had known who were now happily in university. And now that we’re all middle-aged, the ones I keep in touch with are indeed successful career people. And I just wish my parents had been more involved.

  51. mystic_eye_cda December 2, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    If helicoptered kids really did do better in post-secondary then wouldn’t the schools encourage it? Rather than hate it? Rather than kick parents off campus, ban parents from some events, forcibly try to gain some independence for their students?

    Wouldn’t top companies be looking for these kids and parents? Rather than rolling their eyes and wishing for a better group to pick from?

    So, assuming that top schools and top employers are your measure of success, either helicoptering isn’t working, or the schools and employers aren’t very good at picking top candidates – and aren’t really the best schools or employers any more.

    Assuming those are your top two measures of success, which they aren’t for me, but assuming they are don’t their own recruitment/hr boards disprove your logic? I’m sure there are very successful helicopted adults but post hoc ergo propter hoc.

  52. other Betsy December 2, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    I remember being horrified while growing up hearing about the driven scholars in Japan; but their suicide rate was much higher at the time than the slacker American academic culture (a quick online search show their suicide rate continues to climb). I am raising thinking, inquisitive children. I suppose our homeschooling ends up being Free Range, b/c after 2 years of it, I have a hard time stomaching sending daughter back to a public high school, where homework takes up much of the time of really living. We anticipate no problems getting her into the college of her choice, as she will certainly be taking some community college math classes or whatever in high school. She’s 12, and I let her take her 7 year old brother to the park when he had a day off (charter) school a couple weeks ago. He’s hyperactive as all get out (think pingpong balls), which is why we didn’t do it sooner, but since he has introduced himself to the entire neighborhood, and trick-or-treating with his sister went fine, I had no qualms about it.

  53. other Betsy December 2, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    I think Ann above misses the point: Free Range doesn’t mean uninvolved. I take the time to get to know what our kids like, what their learning style is, and to expose them to different experiences, etc. You don’t have to be helicopter to make it clear that their choices will affect their lives, and that they are expected to grow up to be responsible (and can-do!) contributing members of society. The same Free Range philosophy that teaches a kid to wash their clothing also teaches them to take education seriously (whether they want to apprentice as a mason, or go to veterinary college).

  54. Andrea December 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    My husband and I were both raised freerange-ish. I buckled down in high school, had a near perfect GPA and plenty of impressive extracurricular stuff, went to a fancy midwestern liberal arts college and did well there, then I became an itinerant adventurer/starving artist type and lived by my wits for much of my twenties before getting married. Now I stay at home, homeschool the kids, and dabble in cool projects that hardly make me any money. I’m satisfied with my life, but I’m certainly nobody’s poster child for academics leading to career success.

    My husband, on the other hand, was a party boy in both high school and college. He went to an average school in a tropical locale where he had a lot more fun than I did in the midwest. He partied, drank, did drugs, surfed, and squeaked by with just enough GPA to graduate both times. Then he buckled down, got a job, shot up the corporate ladder and now he’s probably months away from a promotion to vice president. He’s probably a decade younger than any other VP’s at his company.

    To be honest, I’m happier than he is, but I’m thankful that he brings in enough money for me to stay home. He’s proud of himself, but the stress of his job is pretty breathtaking. It’s his dream to quit and open a food truck. We’re a good example of how complex success is — it’s not at all something that can be measured by institutional metrics or acceptances.

  55. Lara December 2, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    No. Obviously the mother needs to read: How to land your kid into therapy.


    Everything looks rosy on the outside, but on the inside these kids are…..well confused….

  56. Mellie December 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Emily wins the internet for her stories about helicoptered kids she encountered in college. Love it! (Sorry that one kid got salmonella, though).

  57. Steve December 2, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    I read through a bunch of the comments and didn’t see anyone commenting on the Richard Branson bio. Did anyone read it?

    You’re missing a great book from what I could tell from the “first pages” at Amazon. I’ve just ordered a copy. Branson is the ultimate-Free-Range-poster-boy raised by parents who lived Lenore’s Free Range philosophy.

    Lenore…have you considered having a page listing famous people who were raised Free Range?

  58. Emily December 3, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    @Mellie–Thanks, but I kind of threw myself under the bus too, because my mom filled me with so much (secondhand) paranoia that I actually made my own pepper spray.

  59. ebohlman December 3, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    Warren, Malcolm and several others are absolutely right that the letter-writer has fallen into the trap of comparing her unfiltered observations of her own kids with her heavily-filtered (“managed” might be a better word) observations of her acquaintances’ kids. Remember that children aren’t legally classified as drugs or medical devices, so they and their parents are free to present their positives without mentioning the negatives (now I’m envisioning a SNL sketch where parental bragging has to be accompanied by FDA-style warnings).

    In his classic book Innumeracy, mathematician John Allen Paulos pointed out another aspect of this phenomenon: when you’re comparing yourself or your kids to a group of others, often times what you’re really comparing to is an idealized composite individual with all the “good” traits, and none of the “bad” traits, that can be found in the group (I suppose pathological narcissists do the opposite, creating a composite of all the bad traits that they can feel superior to).

    Paulos also mentioned a statistical phenomenon, namely that while the average of a sample from a population doesn’t depend on the size of the sample, the maximum value does, with bigger samples having larger maxima. He suggested that this, combined with media developments, has distorted our perceptions simply because we have a much larger group to compare ourselves against (his example was how a small-town baseball team that seemed great in the past now seems mediocre simply because it’s now being compared to all the teams in the world rather than just the ones in its league). This can lead to the “big fish in a small pond” phenomenon.

  60. Puzzled December 3, 2013 at 2:04 am #

    I face similar challenges in being a free-range teacher (no, not the same as being a free-range parent, but it’s what I know.) My kids are falling behind! They don’t all learn the quadratic formula – they don’t do as well on AP and SAT as what I call the ‘helicopter teachers’ who teach them formulas and drill them. Not only that, but I hear from people I respect that I’m failing in my job, that I’m failing to lead.

    I’m always willing to consider the possibility of being wrong, but in this case, I don’t think I am. I let my students decide what to study. I help them to find things they are care about, and to pursue them. If they stop caring about them, we find new things. We build computers, we make 100 page charts comparing government and economic systems.

    During a break from school, I received page-long email from a student who I don’t formally teach, and who is considered obstructive, disobedient, and uninterested in learning. His email ran on for a page, listing things he wanted to learn about. I lit a spark and he took off, and now we have enough material to fill his free time for the rest of the school year – with the school day being left for schoolwork. (If he were my student, that would be different, but if I want to be allowed to teach my way, I need to let others teach their way.)

    When my colleagues say I fail to lead my students, I think they really mean that I fail to lead them to be more like my colleagues think they should be. I firmly believe that schools should not be about power-over, or about telling students what is important and what they thinking need to think about. Instead, they should be places to foster thinking and learning, and to encourage self-directed learning. (If they are to exist at all, which I question.)

    I just had a lengthy conversation with a colleague (which is why I’m up so late commenting) about this. He claims I am preparing my students for some utopia that doesn’t exist, and doing them a disservice by not instead preparing them for the actual world where most of us will take orders. I don’t think this is a disservice. I don’t think it’s particularly hard to learn later to take arbitrary orders (he used the example of teaching and drilling pointless material to teach that you have to follow orders and do what needs to be done even when you don’t believe in it. This wouldn’t bother me so much, except that I respect this teacher greatly, and love what I see him bringing to his classroom. I just tried to explain to him that that is what he brings to his classroom, and I bring something different to mine, and since we share a learning community, our students get the benefits of both.

    I do lead my students. I lead them to think for themselves. I lead them to find what interests them and chase it down. I lead them to stand up when they think something is wrong or they are being treated unfairly.

    I’ve lived this way, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s led to more failure than success. Einstein failed out of school and worked as a patent clerk – but he had a spark. If I give my students a spark, I’m happy, even if they don’t go to or finish college. My goal is for them to learn, to want to learn, to be driven, to care, to want to be good, to seek justice, and to be happy. I ran for office two times before I was elected – I got less than 1% both times. In my third race, I unseated a Republican incumbent in a race where, for every other seat, Republicans won. I try the impossible frequently, and usually fail. That’s what I hope for my students as well.

    I know this is kind of a tangent, since I’m not a parent, but as a boarding school teacher, I sometimes feel like a stand-in parent. Parents entrust me with the entirety of their child, not just their education. I think I’m speaking to the points raised here. My students might less likely than others to succeed on the SAT, since I don’t drill them for it. I’m in much the same position as the OP. My advice is – readjust your mission and your meaning of success.

  61. Jenny Islander December 3, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    E, good point about Facebook. I avoid it like the plague because I don’t want to watch people bragging to all and sundry in the market square; I want to sit down over mugs of tea with people who want to talk and listen to me.

  62. rhodykat December 3, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    I read something along these lines when I was teaching: The “A” students are your researchers. The “B” students are your managers. The “C” students; however, are your innovators and thinkers. The loophole students who see the big picture and life beyond what is asked of them…these “C” students are the ones who really have the potential to become something.

    I’ve told my kids time and time again – if you want to work in a skilled profession and be something like a doctor or a lawyer, you have to go to college. If you want to work for someone else for the rest of your life in an office, you have to go to college. However, you kids are smart- if you can think outside the box and figure out a way to support the lifestyle you want working for yourself, then you can take a course or two that you need, but you can skip the rest of college and take that money to invest in your dream (with submission of a valid business plan, of course!).

  63. Kenny Felder December 3, 2013 at 6:28 am #

    I am a high school teacher and a father of four kids. My oldest daughter is a Sophomore at Northwestern University, and I know I’m bragging but it seems on topic–she’s doing great–heavily involved in the school on multiple levels, getting good grades in good classes in one of the most exclusive colleges in the country, you name it. Anyway, here are my two big responses and “Wondering” I really hope you are reading this because I think you’re asking a sincere and a very important question.

    First, and this may seem like a detail but it’s super important to me, let’s distinguish between two types of helicoptering. One type is “hyper safety conscious,” depriving kids of any independence, keeping them locked in your sight at all times because they might get kidnapped or explode. That’s the thing I’m personally dead set against and it is *not* what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the “tiger Mom” mentality (look it up) that actually drives kids to be independent but pushes them to always achieve academically and master the violin at the same time, at the expense of any casual free time. I’m against that too, but it’s not the same thing.

    But here is something that might surprise you. I’ve talked to a lot of college professors and administrators and the helicopter parents of both types are driving them crazy! They are seeing students show up at college with the attitude of fifth graders. It’s the professor’s job to make sure I do my homework. It’s the college’s job to make sure I get into all my favorite classes. And (worst of all) if something goes wrong my Mom will come rescue me. I really have heard this lament over and over, always with the addendum “This never used to happen twenty years ago. What’s gone wrong?”

    Free Range to me means that I want to raise kids who are psychologically healthy. I believe that requires a lot of freedom as well as a lot of loving support, and it’s always hard to find the balance, and I’m sure I do it wrong a *lot*. But I’m equally sure that the modern helicopter parent is way out of balance, and we are seeing the consequences in colleges today.

  64. katie December 3, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    1. Sounds like the work of some trollish helicopter mom.
    2. The proper term for children of helicopter parents enterin college is crispies and even if they look perfect they are burnt out and miserable which isn’t a win.
    3. I see plenty of badly behaved children with helicopter parents. They are spoiled and don’t know how to interact because they are used to having their own rooms and being chauffeured around in giant gas guzzlers so big they can’t even interact with their siblings properly.

  65. Christopher Byrne December 3, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Hooray for every kid that turns out great. However, as Lenore points out, there are many factors that shape a child’s personality and future. But this speaks to a larger cultural issue, which is the all-too-common propensity for people to use anecdotal information to draw a wide-ranging conclusion. Just because these kids were “helicoptered” and turned out well, that can’t be seen as representative of the population as a whole. I know a whole group of kids whose parents were engaged in their studies, active in their schools and STILL let them go into Manhattan alone to attend an event when they were 16. Did they worry if the kids were ready? Of course. Did the kids have cell phones to call and someone in Manhattan to reach out to (me) if they needed help. Yes. Is that helicopter parenting or simply rational consideration of potential eventualities with a structure in place? I didn’t hear from the kids. They were successful in their quest, had a marvelous time, and laid the ground for future trips with no Dutch Uncle on call. Can I extrapolate from that isolated experience any generalities about parenting or these kids? Absolutely not–at least not in any credible way.

    Free-Range is about preparing kids and giving them responsibilities as they are ready for them. It is about letting go of the fears of “what if” and allowing a rational assessment of “what is” to be a guide. Free Range is not turning children out onto the veldt with nothing but a stick and a flint. It is not “Shrek” where the young ogre is turned out at 7.

    The larger issue–and it is endemic in our media–is that one person’s experience or opinion attempts to–and sometimes can–shape what should be a larger, more rational argument. I will spare you the stories of helicoptered kids I’ve encountered who cannot function well in the adult world, as they are no more representative of parenting than the positive stories.

    This is no different than trying to point to a few cases to say that the ACA doesn’t work or other news stories. Each child is different and requires different levels of engagement from parents at different times. The idea of being Free Range, however it is expressed in individual situations, is to raise capable, confident children–and not drive yourself crazy in the process. And the best way to do that, as Lenore constantly says, is to live in reality and not drive yourself nuts.

    Hooray for every kid that turns out well, and hooray for every parent that achieves that without draining themselves and losing their reality or themselves in the process.

  66. Donna December 3, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Of course being free range doesn’t guarantee success. If it did, every single person born before 1980ish would have been a resounding success. The makings of success are much more involved than how you were parented and no one parenting style is a sliver bullet to success.

    I do think that the writer may need to adjust her definition of “success.” Success to me is doing what makes you happy. If that is, in fact, going to the best schools and getting a high-powered job, that is fine. But you really only lack success by failing to achieve those things if those things are what you really want out of life. I certainly don’t consider myself a failure because I make a pittance doing public interest work instead of a fortune working at one of the best law firms in the country. I love what I do.

    I also wonder if the writer is not conflating two unrelated things. I believe strongly in free range parenting – ie kids doing things for themselves. I also believe strongly in pushing kids to want to achieve their fullest academic potential, including taking challenging classes, getting good grades and doing well on the SAT. Not because I care whether my child actually chooses to go to an Ivy league college and get a high-powered job, but because the choices we make young absolutely do effect the options we have later in life. An A student with strong SAT scores can go to Harvard or dig ditches. A C student with mediocre SAT scores is stuck with digging ditches. Not a problem if you want to dig ditches, but a problem if you really want to go to Harvard. (And Harvard and ditch digging are metaphors. I don’t really think those are the only options).

  67. E December 3, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    @Donna makes a good point about options. Kids are already in MS/HS and building their college applications before they even understand how that will impact them. Someone even posted about their own experience, realizing as a Sr where they fell in regard to options and how it affected them.

    I realize people are trying to point out that Free Range kids aren’t at a disadvantage, but there seem to be a number of 1 dimensional anecdotes here too. The only people that want to hear about your kids’ course load and straight As are their grandparents. It’s snippets like that that got the poster in this mindspace to begin with.

  68. SKL December 3, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    Somewhere I remember reading about an international comparison of parenting values. One thing that stood out was that US parents’ tendency to focus on how smart their kids are is not found in many other countries. It made me think. I mean, yes, that is definitely part of my family’s culture. If a kid is of average intelligence or academic achievement, it’s considered kind of sad. When we talk about how the nieces and nephews are doing, their intelligence or educational status is always part of the discussion. But why, and is that really necessary? Does anyone dare to ignore academics and see what happens?

    If I chill out with the academics with my “average” kid, pretty soon I start to get nasty-grams from her teacher. There is a lot of pressure whether we like it or not. Recently I got a long handwritten note because my kid got an 80% on a comprehension test on a third-grade-level chapter book (she just turned 7). She got an F on a paper because she didn’t know things like, if you’re building a snowman and you have sticks, the sticks HAVE to be used for the arms, never the mouth. And I was told that she needs to practice more because this sort of thing is going to be “on the tests.” Bah. I would like to tell them to take their tests and shove them, but since it’s a parochial school, they could tell me to stuff it and leave.

  69. Backroads December 3, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    So your friend is saying all or many helicoptered kids do better than freerange kids.

    Not buying it.

    This mom is seeing a tiny sample that was probably decorated enough to look super impressive. Not that helicoptered kids would do worse in college by and large or anything like that, but unless someone wants to show me some trustworthy studies about what kind of parenting is significantly better for your child’s education…

  70. Dave December 3, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    Lenore thanks for the well reasoned and wise response. When comparing our kids with others there is always a bigger story. One question is what values are important; the ability to navigate life or landing the best job? We put value on things and think they apply to everyone. People are content in different walks of life for different reasons. Not everyone gets into the best schools nor to they necessarily want to. Some enter business and some are artist. Some teach and others enter social work. Not every profession leads to a high paying job, but that doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. The point of free range is letting the young person find his way with quittance from others. That is differnt than being pushed along by someone else’s agenda.

  71. katie December 3, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    @Dave, That’s a good way to put it. For example how much happiness does becoming a big time lawyer be where you work 12-16 hours a day and have lots of money but no time to enjoy it. It doesn’t matter how far up you go in the rat race at the end of the day your still a rat. I choose not to be a rat and don’t want my kids to be either.

  72. katie December 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    @Backroads-there have been studies and they actually show the reverse. That helicoptered kids are more likely to become unstable and suffer from mental health and even physical health problems.

  73. Shannon December 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    Long time reader of this blog, first time commenter. I just felt I had to respond to “Wonderin”‘s questions.

    I was definitely raised free-range. My dad is a hippy, and my is from Africa, so that’s just how they were. I had a horse when I was 13 and I was able to walk over the stable, saddle up the horse, and take it for long trial rides into the canyons. All without a cellphone or a way to contact home! I also then had to clean the horse, feed it, etc. At 16 my mom did let me go to Europe by myself though she put me in touch with wonderful friends over there to help guide me. I had a great time.

    I was always self-sufficient. I got the sense that my parents trusted me to make decisions, and through that responsibility I was also serious about making decisions (the big ones anyway). I was an honors/AP student in high school, head cheerleader, and involved in the arts programs at school. I did all my own college applications. I did my own studying for the SAT (never occurred to us to get a tutor). I did well, I got into a number of good schools. I decided on Berkeley where I had a wonderful experience. I joined a sorority and held a position on the leadership council. I tried out different majors and after settling on Art History worked to make sure to graduate “on-time”. After college I did float around a bit trying to figure out what I wanted to do. But I got enough odd-jobs (including being a part-time bank teller) to get my own place and move out of my parents house. And once I felt ready to really settle down and have a career I got myself my first job as an assistant at a web design company. I took that opportunity and ran with it. I thrived at work and quickly made my way up the ladder. I moved companies a few times. I am now a Vice President at a tech company (at 30 years old).

    All this to say that being free-range or being a helicopter parent won’t mean your kids are successful or not. I think that’s a very black and white view of things. To say that I have been successful because I was raised a certain way seems to over-simplify my life. I think there are a number of reasons for my success. And there are a number of factors to other people’s successes or failures.

    But, I personally feel that they way I was raised has helped me excel in my work environments. People like working with me because I can take initiative and I’m not afraid to take on responsibility. I also am not afraid to work hard because I don’t feel entitled or expect things to be easy. There have been a lot of times over my career so far that I’ve been asked to do something at work that I’d never done before, and I felt intimidated. But I was able to trust in my abilities and at lest try even if it meant I didn’t do it perfectly. That self-reliance and “grit” is something in myself I value. And I don’t know if it would have happened if I hadn’t been raised free-range.

    So, please trust in the good things and lessons you taught your kids. Maybe they are floundering a bit right now but it’s a journey and you never know where they will end up.

  74. Donna December 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    “For example how much happiness does becoming a big time lawyer be where you work 12-16 hours a day and have lots of money but no time to enjoy it.”

    As someone who did that, there is a great amount of happiness for some people, a great amount of unhappiness for others and a whole lot of “it’s great as a stepping stone to get me someplace else but not what I want to do for life.”

    “I choose not to be a rat and don’t want my kids to be either.”

    To me that is equally as bad as saying I only want my kids to go to be CEO. It takes all kinds in the world and you don’t always get an exact copy of yourself in your children.

  75. Papilio December 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Steve: “a page listing famous people who were raised Free Range”

    But FR is all about giving kids the childhood “we” had – so wouldn’t that list include practically everyone over, say, 30 (speaking for the US)?

    SKL: “…an international comparison of parenting values. One thing that stood out was that US parents’ tendency to focus on how smart their kids are is not found in many other countries.”

    I must have read something similar about what parents liked to do with their kids. The US parents wanted it all to be educational/beneficial. A Dutch dad and his young kids OTOH just liked to go to the glass containers outside the supermarket every Saturday morning to throw all their empty bottles and jars in…

    Katie: “how much happiness does becoming a big time lawyer be where you work 12-16 hours a day and have lots of money but no time to enjoy it.”

    Indeed! All work and no play just breeds axe murderers 😛

  76. Nic December 3, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    Knowing one or two kids and adults who are being or have been helicopter parented, I would disagree that they are better off. One adult I know who was always in care, in mums taxi, at all sorts of ” extra-curricular” activities, and constantly “s”mothered, now has her own family with kids, and is still hovered over and can’t seem to survive without mum even to go grocery shopping or to pay her own bills. Mum is always the safety net. There is no need to learn how to navigate the world or cope when you have someone who will forever watch over you and bail you out.
    The child I know is the ultimate helicopter child. I have a strong suspicion that rebellion is on the horizon, and that her issues with food are her way of trying to get back control.

  77. susan Jackson December 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    My kids are free range. They may not have gotten into “top” colleges, but they got into every college they applied to. Early on, college counselor told me”the college your child is accepted at is the best fit for them.” Seems like a facile statement, but it’s deep..sure, they could have stretched and gotten into Harvard, for instance, but would that be a good fit for them? (Harvard being a hyperbole exaggeration, I’m not that crazy.) My kids know how to handle themselves in a store, car, trains and planes. I couldn’t imagine a better fit for my oldest, who is at a SUNY college where she said “I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else…not fitting in and not making these friends and college would not have been the same.” She is participating in clubs and theatrical shows, she changed her major wit help from career counselors (and we couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome) and she is blooming and blossoming as an RA and Orientation leader who puts other students and parents at ease. Oh, have I mentioned that this child has ADD? And my second daughter is a freshman at her college, handles her sports, band and schedule efficiently, and is competently handling all events. Our third daughter helps out at home by cooking dinner for the family (I have two in college, therefore, two jobs…) and doing her own laundry, etc.. ever since the age of 13 (so 3 years. ) She also takes 2 AP and one college class at HS. Yeah, helicoptered kids might start out of the gate really well, with a push to a “good” college and all that…but watch what happens in a year or two…I can’t tell you how many of my daughters’ peers can’t function when asked to do laundry, manage their own time, behavior, schedule and expectations. Give it time.

  78. SKL December 4, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Oh yeah, after I took the GMAT and scored high, I got a letter from Yale asking why I had not applied to their school. I only ever applied to one undergrad (the one I could afford since I could commute daily), and to one grad school (the best one in easy driving distance). I didn’t really know much about fancy schools – after all, both of my parents were high school dropouts and we had no money anyway. I have no regrets. As an extreme introvert, I had no desire to get out there and compete with people who consider themselves the best. I just wanted to get an education so I could get a job in a field of interest.

    Now I am often around people who think that only the best is good enough. They are certain that if you aren’t in the top few percent, you might as well give up now. It can get to you after a while. “Maybe I should be pushing my lil bookworm.” But so far I still think that, at least where I live, it doesn’t matter that much. As long as you work hard every day, you’re going to be OK.

  79. J- December 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    If I hear “the right school” one more time, I am going to scream. I went to a small college nobody from my high school had ever heard of, in a small town in Indiana, famous only for being the butt of Steve Martin jokes. Then I went to a state graduate school in rural South Dakota.

    I have classmates that went to Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton. I am more successful than they are. Once, while at work, I was having a disagreement with a fellow engineer as to the results of some calculations. Going back and forth on the math, she finally looked at me and said “I can’t be wrong, I went to MIT.”

    Going to “the right school” is no guarantee of success. It is, at most, a toe in the door to some pretty elite places. But in the long run, there is no evidence that kids who went to “the right schools” can hack it in the real world any better. All an Ivy League education buys you is connections. That may be enough for some. But I’ll take hard work innovation over cronyism and nepotism any day of the week.

    This is one of the beast articles I have ever read:

  80. SKL December 4, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    I was just at an event tonight where I met an old MBA classmate from over 20 years ago. When we were in grad school and just out, she was “impressive” because she went to a fancy undergrad while I went to a modest state university. We went our separate ways, but we check in every so often. She’s looking for a job again. Has no assets and really needs the job. I felt a little bad because despite my being a single mom (she doesn’t have kids), I have enough that if I found myself out of work, I could retire (modestly) if I wanted to. Knock on wood, but I’ve never been out of work. Is it partly because of a free-range background? Maybe. I can at least say it didn’t hurt me.

  81. mobk December 5, 2013 at 12:55 am #

    Lots of great comments.

    Some common themes.
    (1) “Free range” or any other parenting style is not a guarantee of success – however that is defined.
    (2) Free range parenting is not incompatible with having high academic expectations.
    (3)Comparisons are bad, but hard to avoid.
    (4)Success needn’t be defined as being the “best” (something that logically only a tiny minority can achieve) or making tons of money.

    Personally I think that most good parents have occasional doubts about their parenting. After all there is no “One True Path” of parenting success, every kid is different, and each parent needs to try to be true to him/her self. My guess is a parent that is completely convinced they were always making the best parenting decsions, probably isn’t.

  82. Jennifer December 5, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    This view, I think, clearly illustrates the flaws in the current North American definition of “success” when it comes to raising children.

    A very high emphasis is put on academic success – good grades, impressive extracurricular activities, a prestigious university followed by a high paying job. To achieve this, it is becoming increasingly acceptable for this to directly be the work of the parents, rather than the child themselves – the parents pay for tutors, micromanage school projects, hire SAT coaches, insist on piano, ballet, soccer and a myriad of other extracurricular activities, write their university applications, hire tutors for university, do their laundry, jump in with financial or practical support whenever there’s a wrinkle, negotiate with their professors, write their job applications, phone them to remind them to get up on time for work, accompany them to the job interview.

    There are two problems with this. One is that this success is highly dependent on the parent being there. And the parent won’t always be there, unless their child pre-deceases them. With a lifetime of being coached, coddled and carried, the child will go from being totally supported to on their own – at an age well beyond where they are expected to have developed adult coping skills. The older you are when you first experience failure, the harder it will be to handle.

    The second is that this is only part of what makes a successful person. Resiliency, flexibility and creativity will carry you through times when good grades and doing what you’re told don’t solve the problem. Academic success and a prestigious job do not ensure a happy and fulfilling personal life, or healthy, loving relationship. In fact, overly involved parents can actively sabotage adult romantic relationships.

  83. Bob Davis December 5, 2013 at 5:48 am #

    Here’s a story I may have told before: When my younger daughter was in her first year at Pomona College, I stopped by her residence hall one Sunday evening to leave some paper work. We were chatting in front of the building when the brother of one of her classmates drove up in the family car, having brought said classmate back from San Diego. He was rather concerned about the strange noise that was coming from the engine. As you might assume, EVERYONE at Pomona is very smart, but it was Vicky who stepped up to the car, popped the hood, determined that the noise was a squeaky fan belt, and assured the brother that he should be OK going back to San Diego. Things you don’t learn in college prep courses, but build your “street cred”.

  84. Shawn December 6, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    I think the biggest confusion with “Free-Range”, is that many people have the misconception of it being letting kids do whatever they want. That is far from what it is. Lenore explains it pretty good. Too put it in layman’s term, free-range is about teaching your children to be able to do things on their own. And more importantly, in teaching them to do things on their own they learn REAL LIFE lessons at an early age. And we are never to young for that. When they learn to navigate through life’s ups and downs, victories and challenges, their confidence and self-esteem grows. These are what makes for successful individuals.

    What is the common thing about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, The Rockefellers, Chases, etc… They were able to take calculated risks, by having the confidence to step into the unknown (on their own), and making it work for them. A child who has learned to have things done for them, will never learn that kind of confidence in themselves. They may be successful in what they do at whatever point in their lives, but they never learn to reach their true potential. Things they do are always on the “safe” side. Because that is where they feel most comfortable. That’s not a bad thing. But I find it a waste, when people who can do so much more and better, never get a chance to.

    I guess you can view it as, do you want your child to just succeed at what they are comfortable with? Or do you want them to thrive in whatever life throws at them, and have a broader range of opportunities. All on their own. For me, part of what free-range is, knowing that whenever I’m gone from this world, I will feel at peace knowing my child will be just fine without me. From now, or to when he’s an adult and has children of his own. That he’s learned to be confident in being self-reliant and self-sufficient. When there is something that comes his way that he’s never dealt with before, he is more than capable of rising to the challenge, without looking for dad or mom.

  85. Shawn December 6, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    Also to add, getting into good colleges is merely the first step into the working world. But many who do go to college, never end up doing what they went to school for. Be it because they realize it’s not what they really want to do, or they find out they are just not that good at it. Their plans, or rather their parents plans, don’t fall through. Now what? Some kids I know end up moving back to their parents house. Because that’s the way they were helicoptered…sorry raised. Mommy and daddy will take care of everything if things don’t work out. Then you have the kids who have learned to do things on their own, and be on their own. Whether they graduated from college, but didn’t go into the field they went to school for. Or they dropped out, taking a different path they felt was better for them. The ones I’ve known, are doing very well for themselves. Entrepreneurs, Directors of their company, successful consultants, etc… Even though things didn’t go their way, they continued to press on, on their own. With little to no help from their parents.

  86. ArtK December 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    If getting into a good school was the final goal, then perhaps the writer is doing the wrong thing. If raising confident young people who turn into confident adults is the goal, then I think she’s doing fine.

    The assumption that getting into a good school inevitably translates into a good future is one of the things that creates helicopter parents. It’s a measurable goal and has fairly well defined steps along the way, so that makes it attractive. Being “happy” or “independent” are less measurable and are less valued in society, so they aren’t as attractive goals.

    Even if these kids are getting great jobs now, sooner or later (most likely sooner), something will come up that mom or dad can’t solve.

  87. Kay December 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    I swear I had this same distress just a couple weeks ago. That our kids are behind, we were wrong, that the helicoptered and coached kids are miles ahead. Should we have set our entire house up like a classroom? Should we have been out there throwing the ball with our 18 month old? Should we have been constantly giving our children worksheets to practice on? These are some of the things parents around here do. My kids are holding their own but they are not in any advanced classes, they could possibly be if I did all of the above but who knows. E’s comment hits home: that the path our kids were on in elementary in 4th and 5th grade locked in their level for middle school and high school.

    One keeps hearing preparing our kids for the “global economy”. I don’t have the answers.


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