Moms Don't Have to Be Sherpas-- Or Do They?

A Sherpa
Versus Lenore Skenazy

Oh how I wish I hadn't taken down that post on skipping school. 

What's a Sherpa?  A Himalayan navigator, a guide, one who leads, checks the path ahead.

What are Sherpa parents?  Those who shepherd children, protect, probably don't push strollers lest their children think they are being pushed away.
I'm out of town, Los Angeles, and some people are telling me the story of the disappearance of their two year old. This two year old is my grandson.

The little guy follows the dog outside, isn't missed until someone's Spidey sense tingles. All hell breaks loose, but they find him down the street. He's in a very good mood and can't understand what the big fuss is all about.

His point of view is well-taken.  Why the fuss? He's two.
He can handle a walk.

His attitude proves what we say about healthy kids needing space to grow, room to operate independently. If parents hover, children miss golden opportunities to stretch their limits, to gain confidence. They never feel the thrill of I can! in a thousand different ways.

When she's there, mommy, she kisses the boo-boos. When she isn't, the boo-boos are minor annoyances, interruptions in healthy play.  Lacking watchful attention, kids find independent, alternative solutions. We hold them back when we are the only thing they see.

The self is truly the self when tested alone.

This is my argument against the family bed, by the way, something I've wanted to rant about for a long time.  Allowing a child in the sack sabotages his confidence, if protects from competition, not unlike the  menopause of breast-feeding.  Kids need to be alone at dawn, the sun shining through the window, the birds chirping outside, to truly sense that life is beautiful and good, all alone, no large human buffers to buff against ghosts and invisible boogie men.

In the same way, we shouldn't be shielding our progeny from life's many disappointments in the name of love.  Children need disappointment, they need to fail, need to do badly in school, mess up an art project.  At least once.  Failure keeps us humble.

And running to Mommy for help reinforces . . .  running to Mommy for help.  There is a fine line between healthy help-seeking and dependency.  Let them call their friends to figure it out.  Mom won't be there forever.

But parents panic, worry that their kids won't get into college or kindergarten.  It's a cruel, competitive world, hence the help with papers, math, making sure they get to school on time. The consequence is a generation of pampered little people who don’t need to learn how to use a GPS because they have a chauffeur.  I have patients who drive their teenagers to schools less than a mile away.  The kids are lucky if they see a rabbit or a squirrel in their lifetimes. 

Somewhere in this Bible of True Parental Love it apparently says that we're not supposed to let our kids get bored, either.  The idle mind, devil's playground, heroin addiction, surely.  But kids are electronically drugged until they fall bleary-eyed from their chairs, three screens blazing with G-chat, Facebook and lastly, homework.  Still time for teev.   It's a miracle they learn anything.

The good news is that there is a resistance movement to quash helicopter parenting.  Hovering soccer moms come to therapy announcing that they are no longer cursing referees, throwing tomatoes, purses.  They are finding this embarrasses their children. 

Fifty years ago mothers like mine either went to work or made dinner.  Either way, children played hide and seek-- outside-- and baseball, unsupervised, in the park  Can you imagine letting little kids do that now, have free reign over an entire block, the whole neighborhood?  

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, can. She's made a well-deserved splash joking about the redefinition of motherhood.  Her family executive committee made a conscious decision to let their nine-year old son take the train alone because he wanted to be a big boy.  Well, all right then!  The world is yours to explore, dear.  Just be safe.

And the committee taught him how to do just that.

According to Skenazy, what fuels the mishigas is the media (mishigas is Yiddish for craziness, my word not hers, rhymes with dish-wig-floss).  News anchors seize upon missing-persons stories, encourage responsible parents to buy tracking devices.

She has a point about the industry.  But just because people make money off of fear doesn't mean that there is nothing to fear.  Crime is down, as she points out, but some crimes are up, namely child pornography.  States Attorneys offices, the people who train people like me, don't think that the fear of child abduction is an inordinately irrational fear at all.

Sherpa parents knew it all along!

Over-protective, but not blind. They are out there, sorry, the no-good-niks, although they are usually people we know.  But there is stranger danger, it does happen (watch the CNN show  Issues with Jane Velez Mitchell).  Last year a teenager in my neighborhood fought off a man outside the library who tried to throw her into the trunk of his car, and little kids walking home from the bus corner were approached by a man in a car offering candy.


So Sherpa parents aren't over-protective, necessarily.  And they're the ones who attend relationship safety workshops, who worry about the school-yard creeps without knowing that the real threats are working inside.

In schools, working for day camps, and online.  Predators and "business people"* troll for unhappy kids who make themselves vulnerable on the Internet. They are the ones whose Facebook settings are set to Friends with Everyone. Problems at home, needing to vent, lonely, kids write and blog bout their depression. A predator, usually a pornographer, finds it, comments, slowly grooms the child.  
You're so pretty, didn't you know that? Ever think about modeling? 
No hurry to meet.  The cameras are in our homes.

These are not good people.  They are people who have seized upon a billion dollar industry-- the child pornography industry-- and they are looking for their fair share of the pie.

So being the your child's friend (and knowing the babysitter) is the true prime directive, not being a sherpa, and not being too cavalier on the subject, either.  The traditional relationship-violence protection methods are still relevant: teaching kids that not everyone is a friend, that people who tell them to keep secrets might be concealing illegal acts.  Maybe sending them to akido will help, but talking with them about our very different world, one more dangerous than the world that their parents and grandparents reined, is more to the point.

If they worry too much, we can treat that.

And as long as I'm ranting, sorry, one more thing.  You people in Los Angeles?  My first degrees, the ones with the confident baby?  Would you kindly keep an eye on him? Or do I have to move out there?



Anonymous said…
Excellent, intelligent article. I am 64 and grew up in a time where we were expected to play outside for hours (unless the weather was miserable, in which case we played indoors or read books). While there were strict rules about how far we could roam and when we had to return home, parents believed that fresh air and sunshine were good for us.

I saddens me to see the incredibly stifling restrictions put on children today, the hours they spend glued to the moron box or computer and the horrible diets they are fed. I do wonder what they will be like when they finally grow up (besides socially inept and obese).

JD from Calgary, Alberta
Sidney said…
I do like veal; but not parents who raise their children like veal.
Anonymous said…
So, do we build relationship with our children, or not? I guess I'm a little defensive about the family bed. I should say kids here walk to school, have a little more freedom than the urban kids you're describing, although we all spend a lot of time in the van. I digress: the kids I know who were raised to be really independent from an early age tend to be really deceptive, sneaky, into things beyond them, and their parents are busy doing their own thing--the way they were when their kids were little--and they think they're just fine. I guess a lot of us got into attachment parenting because we wanted to raise the kids who could have the internal strength to fight convention if needed (and the creepy guy with the candy), not because we are neurotic fools.
Wendy said…
I'm a mother who worked. Five children in 10 years. I nursed everyone of them until age 2 - it was the way only "I" could be their mother. The family bed was the only way I could nurse and still get some sleep. All of our children have fond memories of our family bed. For some it works, for some it doesn't. I think on a personal basis, it should be a family decision, kind of like deciding to breastfeed or bottlefeed. We know which one is superior, but the one's who don't are not bad parents. I'm more against "choices" that are made without knowing all the pros and cons, but I'm not against any particular "choice". I just hate pacifiers, but my opinion doesn't count with any child except my own.
In spite of the family bed, our daughters rode the train to Paris from where we lived in Belgium at the ages of 16 and 14 - alone - on many occasions. My son's went camping in Wales with friends - all were under 16 - they went alone. We had a confidence with the children's safety and ability to make good decisions in Europe that we do not have in the US. There are kids drinking and driving, the use of drugs and alcohol are rampant - and I don't always have the confidence my children will make the right decisions when there is so much peer pressure. It seems like in Europe - kids were into have fun, going places, doing things, seeing the sights, learning about the history and culture. They understood they were being provided an amazing opportunity and were careful to "deserve" our trust and confidence. In the US it is 300 empty channels on TV, video games to connect to everyone on the internet, everyone in their own room doing their own thing. There seems to be a total lack of "family"... It makes me very sad.
therapydoc said…
I knew it would be a slippery slope, writing about the family bed, and apologize if it insulted anyone in any way.

Of course kids turn out wonderfully, assuming their parents love them. The axiom, a Dodo bird is a Dodo bird is a Dodo bird isn't just for therapists, you know.

I'm going to write more on this one, for sure. Although my preference is that kids have the privilege of waking up in the morning alone, millions of children wake up next to someone, usually a sibling, and they turn out just fine. But that is usually out of financial necessity, not choice. They'll tell you in therapy that they wished they could have had their own beds. Some don't even want children, the thought of sharing triggers so much panic.

But there's so much to be said on this one, and I have a personal take on it, too.
jss said…
It is my theory that every parent will have at least one 'blindingly stupid parent moment' in the early years of their child-rearing life. I see it all the time. For me it was letting my toddler walk around with his favorite bottle which was made of glass (I know, I know). Of course one day he fell with it in his hand and not surprisingly we ended up in the doctor's office fishing around in his hand for pieces of glass. Perhaps for your grandson's parents it was this little adventure he took when he managed to get out of their line of site for a few.

Keeping them safe... the goal of a parent, keeping them safe while allowing them the freedom to explore the world. So very difficult.
Elizabeth said…
Great post. Children do not magically become capable adults when they turn 19. They need practice before that. That means allowing some risk when they are children.

However, throwing them out into the world on the assumption that most people are ok and therefore they should trust most people is a bad idea. Most people are ok. Some are not. It is very hard to tell which is which. It is possible to withhold trust without being fearful, hostile or anti-social. (Boundaries)
Anonymous said…
I must admit that I do have a burr under my saddle that flares up when people go on about "those poor sheltered/overexposed/poorly fed/undernourished kids these days". I don't remember the Golden Age of Childhood that some people love to trot out as an exemplar, where kids frolicked freely, coming in for a homemade dinner. I do remember teachers using paddles (or getting the dad of one particularly troubled boy to come in and forcibly drag him out of class for a whoppin'), gross old men following us in cars and around the library, and boys swigging vodka in the garage. Child abuse, domestic violence and marital rape were not crimes to speak of. Soy formula was taught to be just as good as breastmilk and lunchroom food was just as bad as it is now, except more fried chicken cooked from scratch. Twinkies and Tang were still novel. And we watched a lot of TV too, just General Hospital instead of The Disney Channel. All of this in Mayberry. (And, all things considered, I had a really lovely childhood.)

I would write more but I have to drive a kid to baseball practice.
Tzipporah said…
This is one of the many reasons why it's easier to raise cats than children.

But they frown on enrolling your cats in Hebrew School.
Wendy said…
Cats don't already know Hebrew?? This is a surprise to me!!
Margo said…
I really believe much of what I've achieved as an adult is due to the confidence I have in my own "figure-it-out" ability, and that it stems from you and my father believing I could "figure it out" as a child/teen as well. Homework, directions, where to park believed I could, so I believed I could. Conversely I saw and see the opposite effect many of my friends' parents' "hovering" had on their long-term sense of self and possibility.
Then again, you were also both wide-awake and waiting to talk/sniff my clothes when I came home late, no matter what time.
And then again, MY two-year-old is the one who walked out the front door unnoticed.
Just stumbled on your blog but can't help to read this post. I'm not yet a mother, so I can't relate on how anxious parents are when their children are out of their glance or reach. But I am raised by a mom who knows how and when to reach me and let me go. My mom is not an overprotective mom or a negligent mother. She falls between the two. That's why i'm so thankful that she raised me to become independent as well as responsible person. But this doesn't entail that my mom is perfect, eh. Surely, I know that there are different parents and different kids. Somehow it depends upon the personality of the child and as well as the parent on how to handle each other.:)
Have Myelin? said…
my mother raised me to be independent and my brother, well...he's quite the mamma's boy. we could not be more different. then again, so was our upbringing.

i'm the lucky one since i'm independent. =)

i just found your blog!
Lisa said…
To me, this is yet another example of achieving balance. If we, as parents, lean too much towards either end, then we need to work to push ourselves towards that middle ground. As a whole, our 18 year olds are NOT as ready to be independent as we were a generation ago. Of course, it's multifactorial. The world isn't as safe, technology has trumped imagination, and somehow we all think we have to be super parents and enroll our kids in ridiculous amounts of extracurriculars before they can walk. Oh, and if they can't read by the time they are in kindergarten, they are behind...This baffles me. Be that as it may, I think 18 is not adulthood. Few are financially independent, few have their own insurance, and few have the life skills to not still be reliant on parental figures. So, I would like to see LEGAL adulthood raised to 21, when their frontal lobes are more mature. (We DO know this now. THat the brain is not adult in judgment, etc...until about 24). Perhaps we have created this brain change. But whatever. Having a college age man/child has increased my anxiety. We put a bunch of 18 year old children in a large group together, basically unsupervised (college), and the results are becoming more and more disastrous. Because legally, problems ensue that are lifelong. We have to dress for the weather. And unfortunately, kids are still kids for longer than they used to be. We've done this to them. And now, we need to deal...and no, 18 yr olds shouldn't be able to go to war either.
Sidney said…
I may be in love with Wendy.
Syd said…
I was raised by parents who did not hover. In fact, they wanted me to be out side discovering. They encouraged me intellectually to read and read and read, ask questions, and think for myself. I am grateful for not being coddled. Many kids that I interact with today seem to be socially inept, without manners, and self-centered beyond belief. I wonder how that will play out when they become adults.