Parental control

All this week I have been thinking about the issue of parenting.  One reason was my folks dropped in unexpectedly and we needed to scramble to organize our days (and house) to accommodate them. This almost never happens. For one thing, my dad isn’t crazy about California.  For another, he hates to be away from his sphere of influence and golf (yup, on snow with red balls).



So, here I have been, trying to get a challenging project done while keeping these latest visitors happy. It didn’t help to have our previous guest be so insulting.  Her stay thoroughly turned me off to knocking myself out, acting as an LA tour guide, waiting on people hand and foot (sorry for the cliches) and feeding them, to boot.  I also have a pushy cousin, an attorney from England, who announced that she was coming to LA for an assignment and wanted to get together with me to go over the family tree.  She says she is armed with a list of questions. I have no time to work on that topic these days and now have to find a way to avoid getting together with her.  She stayed with us a couple of years ago and all we ended up doing was taking her around to the places she decided were important, and picking up the tab for the privilege.

Back to the parents.  We had to find something they would both enjoy.  My mother is easy. Take her anywhere and she finds people and things to entertain her.  She is so damn positive, its scary. And, my dad is the opposite. He is the most critical, analytical, cynical human being I have ever met.  One thing they have in common is their love of learning. It was so emphasized when I was growing up that I am always shocked when I meet people whose parents didn’t pressure them to excel academically.  I guess when you have just one child, you concentrate on them unbelievably.  Anyway, my mother’s career has been educating children (special ed — which includes the gifted and talented), my dad’s science (chemistry) so I thought they would enjoy walking around Caltech and having lunch in Pasadena — so they would feel at home.


The weather was perfect: cool and overcast.  It mirrored my mood and gave me a different vibe to capture in stark contrast to the over-bright pictures I usually have to take with relentless sun beating down all the time. My dad has an old college buddy at Caltech so we parked him in the lab and wandered around.  It was truly a tranquil, inspiring setting and a godsend, getting us all out of the house and into an environment where my dad would be comfortable.

But our détente was shattered by the Super Bowl.  You can guess: my dad, pulling for the Patriots and Geoffrey (and all his friends) in Seahawk territory. OK, so to give him credit, G. forewent the party and stayed home with my parents to watch the game. It was tense, to say the least.  The thing with Geoff, though, is he is a quiet loser. The stupid play that cost Seattle the game (hey, didn’t they watch The Blindside? ‘Run the dang ball!’ …) left him in a somber mood. I think North Carolina Running Back DeAngelo Williams came up with the best and most charitable description for the disastrous decision by saying “they played chess when they should have played checkers”.


But at least my dad, being away from his element, could feel good about the Patriot win.  I forced myself to sit in the family room with them, something I usually avoid, since the roaring in the crowd and the shouting commentators make me nervous.  But I am knitting a long sweater-coat, and reading an intriguing book right now about Saudi women, so I could do both even with the game blaring. Still, the error that ended the game cast a pall over the end of their visit.  We packed them off the next day with a sigh of rueful relief.


So, while I was dealing with my personal parental issues I have also been meaning to comment on the latest controversial trend in parenting, i.e. that of helicoptering vs free ranging. As I have said so many time before, I hate labels, categories, classifications and any other form of limitation placed on natural life, for the purpose of argument or discussion or solving problems. The fact is, no one and nothing in this universe really can be defined by a category (or even multiple designations). Things are just bigger than that, to put it in simple terms. Phenomena when considered organically or as a whole defy even definition, let alone confinement.


The idea of helicopter parenting has been around since the late 1960s, so it is nothing new. But I also think it is a poor concept.  In over-simplified terms, it describes a parent who is smothering the child with apparent attention but who is actually absent on a true emotional, connective level.  Again, the minute we hear the term, we conjure up a certain kind of annoying person who thinks they are doing the right thing by their child but who is actually damaging them.  I would prefer to take the individual parent/child duo and its dynamics on a case by case basis.

The only reason I mention the idea here, is that I think it has led to the ‘free range’ parent phenomenon, which is far more dangerous.  Increasingly one hears anecdotes about parents who allow their children much greater freedom than is appropriate for their age as well as the world we live in.  An example would be the parents who were recently charged with child endangerment when they allowed their two very young children to walk a couple of miles between a park and home, unaccompanied by an adult.  In this classification I would place any parent who allows a child to be on his or her computer behind closed doors, completely unsupervised. This is stupidity and recklessness.  I would have a computer hub centrally located in the house where children would do their homework at night — not in their rooms, as unpopular and harsh as that might seem.


Of course we want children to develop independence, critical thinking, judgment and a healthy, strong sense of self and capacity, but not at the wrong time.  The raising of a child, by all caregivers, is a gradual introduction to the world and a steady unfolding of realities, fostering trust and eventually decision-making on their own.  All one need do is read a simple Piaget-style primer on this topic to learn what is and is not acceptable at each age.  People who confront their children with difficult decisions and environments too early are risking catastrophic outcomes.

The hands-off, free range-style parents, who have just enough information to be dangerous, and who are by and large ignorant, are responsible for a spectrum of accidents befalling their kids, from incidents like the three year old who shot both her parents this past week, with a handgun taken from the mother’s purse, to any number of boys and girls who are kidnapped, raped and murdered when lured into danger by disturbed people, both familiars and strangers alike, when they don’t have the proper monitoring.


It truly pains me to see people have children who have spent no time learning about human development, childhood or parenting.  The information is out there, a lot of it.  Much of it is wrong and contradictory.  But the same could be said about anything of importance.  Buying a car takes research and sorting out information to identify the best choice.  So does parenting, as I have said ad nauseum.  Free range parenting as it is meant by the movement afoot today is abuse.

A good parent protects his or her child until that nascent human being is ready to take care of themselves.  While it certainly varies from individual to individual, the legal age of majority is a good enough (and scientific enough) benchmark for giving freer reign to a child.  In fact, the more closely the upbringing resembles the ideal, the greater the likelihood that an 18 year old will be ready to face the world on his/her own.


It is hard sometimes to separate the smothering parent from the loving and nurturing one, and the independence-loving parent from those who are essentially lazy and self-absorbed. But that is the challenge parents (and teachers, for that matter) face. If you can’t or don’t want to pay attention and put the child first, you don’t belong around kids.

Finally, because it is so topical right now, let me say a few words on the topic of immunization. I have a complex approach to this topic.  As you know, I am not a believer in just slavishly acceding to the directions of any so called ‘expert’.  I believe in being armed with information and then taking into consideration whoever is in charge of some area, like our health.  It is no different on this topic, so here goes.  First off, I do not believe parents ‘own’ their children, as Dr. Rand Paul said this week.  I believe children are entrusted to their parents, but own themselves and are simply maturing to emancipation under their parents’ care.  Secondly, I think there are diseases for which vaccination is the best of the bad choices. Among them would be polio, smallpox, and pertussis.  These things are not to be trifled with.


But again, this is on an individual, case by case basis.  We face a tough choice.  Measles, chicken-pox, mumps have been around for centuries. If your child has a healthy immune system, s/he is likely to survive these diseases with immunity to them.  Not that we would wish this on them, naturally.  Avoiding disease is paramount and in most cases can be ensured with proper regimens (nutrition, activity, rest, healthy emotional support, etc.).  But there are children whose immune systems are so compromised that they cannot risk these illnesses. For their sakes and because we live in a world where the greater good of society has to take precedence over our individual preferences, we must go ahead and immunize every child (and adult) to protect the group.  My suggestion would be that there not be these multi-shot visits, where the toxic cocktail from a half dozen or more diseases is injected directly into the bloodstream of a six-month old all at once. This is done for expedience and cost-control but I do question the wisdom of subjecting such an immature organism to that kind of assault. Vaccinate we must, but let’s do it in a nuanced manner, tailored to the individual.

This just in

I just heard Il Papa’s unfortunate comments on corporal punishment.  This is a topic on which I feel very strongly, so I will save it for a future post.

 Images: Beth Byrnes archives: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

19 Comments on “Parental control”

    • Thank you Bob.

      I am a child psychologist/early childhood specialist so that helps. And I grew up in a child education-centered environment.

      Yes, I plan an upcoming posts on all my knitting projects. They keep me sane!! ;-D


  1. Oh, could I write an entire post here! Ok, disclaimer: not a parent. But I was an elementary teacher for over 20 years and had an ME in child development and curriculum. As such, took lots of child development courses. One of the schools in which I taught gave weekly classes on parenting / child development. We never had more than 10 parents show up.

    Frankly, the solution to getting parents educated would be to require attendance when kids enter public school. But – OMGOSH – mandate education for parents? Heaven forbid! That would be Big Government! 😮

    Both types of parents – “helicopters” and “free range” – drove me crazy, because in both cases, it was more about the parent than the child. No balance, no moderation, and the child feels either smothered and inadequate because the parent handles everything, or neglected and inadequate because there is no parent to teach and model responsibility.

    Just my two cents. :-/


    • Very telling and sharp observations.

      I agree about mandating parent education, but people chafe at the slightest implication that they have to do anything. Better to ruin all lives involved than be told what to do. And that is often the result of having been improperly parented themselves.

      Rudolf Steiner has said, the purpose of a good education should be to teach a child how to be free. You can’t do that when the adults are prisoners of their own pain.

      And, of course, it is all about the adults, who are just superannuated children themselves. Yet they have no self-awareness. The whole idea that they ‘own’ their children says it all. They live through those children or they have them and then ignore them while they continue to try to recover the caring that they missed and can never get back.

      I pity the teachers — the lowest people in the chain, with no real power but unreasonable expectations made upon them.

      Your two cents are made of diamonds, Susan. Thank you!


  2. I agree with your assessment of the vaccination issue, which is currently such a hot-button topic with the media since the Disneyland incident. But you already knew that 😉

    My parents did not give one whit what sort of grades I made; they cared that I was pretty and had boyfriends – which I didn’t because I was shy, and there was no end to the concern my mother and grandmother had that I would never get married and have children (this is a concern that started when I was probably 12). Marriage and babies were of the utmost importance, grades and education were not even considered. I suppose this is why I gravitated towards girlfriends who were raised the same way. The idea that parents (and the kids themselves) actually cared about grades wasn’t real to me until I started teaching at a high-performing public school, and honestly it really shocked me at first. It was not the world I grew up in unfortunately, and both my high school and undergraduate transcripts reflect that.

    Yet, they were not “free range” parents by any means. Behavior-wise there were strict expectations, and we followed the rules or we endured my mother’s wrath (in other words, we followed the rules). I suppose they cared and had high demands for us, but they didn’t always direct that caring and demanding to the best aspects of our childhoods. It wasn’t a horrible way to grow up, but it could have been better. Isn’t that always the case, LOL!


    • Well, that is very interesting. My looks were deliberately downplayed, except I was supposed to be perfectly groomed and dressed at all times. I was not allowed a moment to be what my dad considered slovenly. But, he also went out of his way to make sure I was not capitalizing on my appearance. So, I grew up ignoring my physical affect on people, while still making sure it was stunning — does that make sense? I was probably fairly emasculating quite a few times. And I know more than one sorority sister who was afraid to incur my wrath. I am not sure I am much better now, lol.

      But, that is the strong effect parents have on us. I am sure I chose psychology because I was so angry at my dad for being so unreasonable and my mother for letting him be. Now it is too late, because if I bring it up, it makes her sad and him angrier. Sigh!

      Well, good to know that one can succeed in spite of our neurotic upbringings! And you and I turned out to be pretty similar, with opposite messages (seemingly?).


  3. The saying ‘opposites attract’ seem to describe your parents 🙂 My friend who works with special needs students sees incredible depth and beauty in some of her students, and the ugliest sludge of emotions and attitudes in some of the parents. The other day, she observed that virtually all social problems can be traced back to poor parenting. It’s an oversimplification but essentially true. Parenting is one of the most important jobs there is, and it’s one for which there is little preparation or training, save our own flawed parents – by-products of their own flawed parents. And so on. A challenging problem with no simple solution…


    • It seriously is our most important challenge as a modern society and I wonder that it receives so little consideration. People think they can just wing it, make it up as they go along. Then one day they have surly teenagers who cannot be controlled or have no self-control and they wonder why.

      As for my parents, you can say that again. Other than both being born in NY, I think they have nothing else in common! 🙂


  4. I took advantage of beating my mediocre children at every chance 🙂 Okay maybe not, but this free ranging crap scares me to death. I’ve watched families who raised their children that way before “free ranging” became a term and when I’d see these 5 and 6 year old kids walking a mile away from home in a busy shopping center I’d just cringe. It feels like the parents don’t want to accept responsibility for being a parent so they find some fancy non-threatening term to title their poor behavior.

    Being neither cute nor smart I now have something else to blame on my crazy mother!!

    Great post Beth and since you are both cute and smart I hope it will rub off on me 😀


    • Exactly! It is hard work being a parent and yet people think if they can be, they should and it shouldn’t take much effort. Masquerading as a philosophy. Based on what?

      It falls into the category of risky practices that may be unlikely to lead to undesirable outcomes, statistically, but those outcomes, however few are always catastrophic.

      We can gamble with our own lives but have no right to wager with those of children.

      Thanks for the compliments, after this weekend, I felt like neither. 🙂


  5. I like your friends hover fly parent description. Roald Dahl’s story about his child dying of measles has been in the news recently. My Mum is high on manners, no phones at the table, a meal is a time to eat and talk etc. I don’t like watching children running around in restaurants so I know why she insisted on it. High expectations at school and reminders to make the most of it because they finished school at 16/17 to go to work. Lots of love though and attention even though they both work full time most important to me 💖.


    • It is no wonder you have turned out to be such a lovely, accomplished and self-discipline d person, with parents like yours. You are very fortunate, and, you have worked hard to arrive where you are. They must be so thrilled and justifiably proud of you Charlotte! Thank you for adding that corroboration. My slogan for parents is: firm, fair, affectionate. ❤


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