I Never Meant to Be a Pilot

Note: A version of this column first appeared in The Olympian, April 25, 2007.

Once upon a time, before I had children, I was home awaiting a visit from a friend, who brought along her 8-month-old son. I hadn’t seen this friend in months and was glad for the chance to visit. But my excitement quickly turned into annoyance, for as we were talking, my friend kept interrupting our conversation to turn to her child, who was happily playing on his own, to call out “Hey, Bud!” or “Whatcha doin’, baby?” The baby would then turn toward his mom looking slightly alarmed.

Now that I have children, I recognize that interruption is a constant of parenthood (though it’s usually the child interrupting the parent). Still, I remember my friend’s explanation for why she was interrupting our conversation and her child’s play. She wanted to stimulate his brain to form as many synapses as possible, giving him a jump on life.

Science has proven that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. But science has not yet recognized the creature arising from this research: the Helicopter Parent – one who hovers over a child directing every activity, well beyond those first 3 years. As a parent, I recognize the temptation to give a child every advantage. I’ve also started to notice the comic side of that tendency.

How do you know if you’re a Helicopter Parent? To borrow a page from Jeff Foxworthy (since he’s busy with 5th graders), you might be a helicopter if you…

  • Never put your infant down, even during nap time (yours or hers)
  • Marvel at the contents of your child’s diaper while changing it
  • Insist on walking your second-grader to the school crosswalk, which is just across your backyard
  • Videotape all your child’s activities, including visits to other children’s birthday parties
  • Never allow your 10-year-old to play at a friend’s house without being there to supervise
  • Constantly use that computer connection that lets you monitor your child’s activities at junior high
  • Fill out your child’s college applications
  • Distribute your child’s resume at job fairs
  • Consider it a privilege to do your adult child’s laundry

I’m not making these up. They are real-life examples from people I’ve met or heard about. Perhaps you recognize a dad or mom in this list. Perhaps you see me there. (Though my students stared at me wide-eyed when I described having my first-grader pack his own lunch for school.)

Most parents have the best intentions in guiding their children, and that’s what parenthood should be — guiding, not controlling. But some children of helicopters may end up thinking they’re the center of the world because that’s the position they’ve grown accustomed to. Others, given some free time, panic because freedom scares them. Some have told me they’re embarrassed by their parents’ actions. Others admit to rebelling against them. Perhaps the greatest danger is that these children might morph into helicopters themselves.

In those moments when I find myself preparing for take-off, I chant aloud the words of George Carlin: “Parents, leave your kids alone!”  And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a chapter of Confessions of a Slacker Mom, by Muffy Mead-Ferro. It works for dads too.

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The Last Time

The last time I saw my uncle, I concluded that a wife should not take too good care of her husband. I had just dropped Uncle Will off at a relative’s house in my hometown in northern Ohio.  I had talked him into attending my niece’s wedding in Indianapolis 2 days earlier, hoping to boost his spirits since the death of his wife, my aunt and godmother, 3 months earlier. I also wanted to see him since I hadn’t been able to visit from my current home on the west coast before she died.

After time as a naval photographer during World War II, Will had spent his life as a traveling salesman, driving the interstate from Cincinnati to Sarasota selling trinkets, clothing, even certificates for surgery. He was a burly man, raised in burly Chicago, with a sharp, loud laugh and a constant string of stories of what he bought and sold. “Guess what I paid for that” was his favorite phrase.

From him, I understood the concept of capitalism. The refrigerator magnets he bought may have cost only a nickel apiece, but if he sold them for a dime, his profit was pretty good percentage-wise. You have to sell quite a few magnets to support a high lifestyle, though, which is why my aunt and uncle’s credit card bills were high. At the age of 83, Will was still driving bargains and the latest in his string of nice cars, preferably Cadillacs. He bought an XLR roadster after my aunt’s death and drove it down to Florida.
That was the car he drove to Indianapolis for my niece’s wedding. A trip that should have taken 2 hours from Cincinnati on familiar roads took him 6 hours and involved the highway patrol in two states, the local police in two counties, and the Cadillac Onstar customer service agents. Sometime after midnight, the police located him at a convenience store 40 miles north of Indianapolis. The policeman who caught up to him as my brother was filing the missing person report said he thought Will was drunk. He had been driving slowly with his bright lights and flashers on. While my dad and brothers drove to get him, Will spent the time showing the features of his new car to the police officer.

Since it was clear Will couldn’t drive himself back to Cincinnati, I volunteered to do so. After all, I had encouraged him to come. Now as the passenger in his own roadster, he pointed out all the exits he’d taken the day before, trying to find the way to the wedding. And then he dozed. That night I stayed with him in his rental house (he’d sold the house he and my aunt lived in a few weeks before). Instead of his usual salesman’s bluster, he had become docile, agreeing to everything I said. He lost his bearings on the way back from dinner at his favorite restaurant that night. He had me drive by his old house on our way there. He spent the rest of the evening dozing in front of the TV and slept sitting up on the couch all night, unwilling to go to the bed where my aunt no longer slept.  Next morning, I drove his other Cadillac, an Escalade littered with samples of goods to sell, four hours north to my hometown, where Will would stay with another aunt until his daughter could get there. As I left him standing next to my aunt in the driveway, I knew it would be the last time I saw him.

No one expected my uncle to outlive my aunt. Rosemary was 8 years younger, and Will had had bypass surgery, abdominal surgery, and many years of cigarettes and alcohol. Rosemary had tended the house, cooked, shopped, even mowed the lawn. She made my uncle’s coffee every morning and his cocktail every night. She also took care of the business – insurance, taxes, bills, the bookkeeping for his sales, years of receipts tucked away in manila envelopes labeled in her meticulous handwriting. She had once told me, “Everyone needs someone to take care of.” She was his fourth, maybe fifth, wife. They had married in their 40s and never had children together. During her decline from cancer, though, she confessed that she had done everything for Will and maybe “that wasn’t good.” As a tribute to her, I made him coffee, which I rarely drink, on my last morning with him.

Now, barely a month after getting lost on that Indiana highway, the roadster and the Escalade are gone, sold to help pay the large credit bills. His warehouses of goods have been sold. Uncle Will now sits dozing before the TV in a nursing home in Utah, where his daughter lives.