On a recent evening while my man-child was at a friend’s house, my husband, daughter and I headed to our neighborhood Mexican restaurant for dinner. As we were walking out the door, I made a comment about needing to check in on the man-child because he had not confirmed a pick up time. In response, my daughter noted “You guys are kind of helicopter parents with him, but not with me.”
My husband’s immediate response was a chuckle followed by, “We’re not helicopter parents, we’re air traffic control parents.” He’s right. I would have never thought to make the analogy, but as soon as he said it, I knew he was right. We are air traffic control parents.
The job of an air traffic controller is to help guide pilots, with extra guidance given during take offs, landings and in times of turbulance. The air traffic controller does not fly the plane – they manage the air space a plane is in and alert pilots to things that they may not be able to see on their own (rough weather, crowded air space, slippery runway, etc).
From an early age we chose to guide instead of direct both of our children – giving them space to explore and grow, providing suggestions when we noticed them veering off course, stepping in to assist only when they could not navigate a situation on their own, and always stepping in to help when they directly requested help. The goal has always been to encourage autonomy and build reslience as they learn to navigate life themselves, while also knowing when it’s time to ask for outside help.
So if the goal was the same for both kids from the beginning, how did we get to a place where the 13 year old recognizes we do parent her and her brother differently? Simply put – the man-child is experiencing extreme turbulence on this portion of his journey and the girl has (relatively) calm, clear skies. We still live by a guide instead of direct philosophy, but while the triple whammy of hormones/anxiety/depression are in the pilot seat of the man-child’s brain, he needs air traffic control parents to be scanning for turbulence he simply cannot see on his own. He needs checklist reminders that are designed to make sure his decisions are safe and productive. He needs extra help navigating this part of his journey. He needs the reassurance from outside his own mind and body that although it often feels like he can’t keep the plane in the sky, that he can and he will. He needs more right now than his sister and she’s intuitive enough to recognize that fact. She’s a little wise beyond her years.
That’s not to say that he will always need us more than she does – there are still a ton of teenage years and the challenges they might bring ahead of us – but right now he does and thankfully she really seems to be okay with that. We raised them both with the same core parenting and adjust as we go along for what they need as individuals at any given time, and if we don’t continue to give them both space to make and learn from mistakes we would certainly be failing them as parents. The difference at this point in time is that the stakes are way higher for the man-child and we have to step in with more course corrections than we’d prefer (and way more course correction than the girl has ever needed) to help ensure he can land safely every day.
So no, we are definitely not helicopter parents (truth – I do not have the energy to be a helicopter parent!) But air traffic control parents – that’s totally us.