A couple years ago, I wrote a blog post and then an expanded article (originally published in The Joyful Life Magazine) about parenting from afar in reference to helicopter parenting. It drew numerous comments, so I knew I was onto something.
Like yours, my life has changed in many ways since then. The pandemic has kept my high-risk-self separated from most of the people I love. I lost both of my own faraway parents. This past month, I became MarMar to a granddaughter in a different time zone.
Which brings me to something big that hasn’t changed: the physical distance between me and my children.
State lines and several hours still separate us. It never gets any easier to watch them climb into the driver’s seat of their car or head to the airport security line without me. Part of the pang comes from my chronic illness, which ebbs and flows and progresses at undefined rates. Part of it is just parenting in this pre-Glory realm.
I’m learning all of parenting is based on this slow letting go. Something I was not prepared for, and something that always catches me off-guard.I’m learning all of parenting is based on this slow letting go. Something I was not prepared for, and something that always catches me off-guard.Click To Tweet
And it’s complicated by the fact that this longed-for grandchild is now among the missing.
But none of this catches God by surprise. I am still, decades into mothering and six years into heart failure, learning how God designed the role of parenting—His and ours. And it hinges on two key words: free will.
He set up the world this way knowing full well what it would cost Him to redeem it. Free will was God’s bargain and He knew it was worth the risk to secure our love to Him.
God set up the world this way knowing full well what it would cost Him to redeem it. Free will was God’s bargain and He knew it was worth the risk to secure our love to Him.Click To Tweet
I am working to embrace this concept with my own children. I’m still not great at it.
If you’re a parent of a faraway child, you know the struggle. Maybe the distance isn’t physical, but emotional or spiritual. Whatever separates us from our children, as parents we strive daily to entrust their hearts and their lives to a God who loves them more, understands them better, and dreams bigger dreams for them than we ever could. And we keep praying over lives we mostly can’t envision, and dreams we often don’t understand.
I hope it helps rereading this post or perhaps listening to it for the first time. As I consider the thoughts again in 2022, I’m wondering…Is helicopter grandparenting a thing?
When my son was 16, he passed the notoriously difficult written driver’s exam and got his learner’s permit. He was timing it to be able to drive independently for a special event, (i.e., future date).
He practiced driving with an adult, and was ready early to take the driving portion, but two other children, my part-time job, and lots of commitments kept putting it off. Finally, I cleared my schedule, arranged for all the other balls to be caught, and cleaned out the car for the 30-mile trip to the driver’s exam office.
Just before I picked up my keys, I asked my son if he had the learner’s permit. He reached into his wallet, pulled out a crisply folded slip of paper, and the plan fell apart in his hands. The expiration date on the learner’s permit showed the prior week. Now he would have to take the written exam over again, wait his required weeks, and then try the driving test. We were looking at another month or two, at best.
Then I did what no momma should do. I took out a pen, and changed the date on that permit to the following month. We didn’t pray; I didn’t ask him how he thought we should handle it. I had an opportunity to demonstrate that we are both fallible, and life doesn’t always go according to plan. Instead, I hovered over, then swooped in and fixed the problem for him.
So, naturally, when I first heard the term “helicopter parent,” I knew they were talking about me.
A helicopter parent is someone who pays close attention to their child’s experiences and problems, overseeing every aspect of their child’s life. The term was coined in the 1990s, when I first I became a mom. (No coincidence.)
It is a sin not of omission (failing to do something) but of commission (trying to do too much). Of trying too hard to be a good parent. And to be fair, I wasn’t obsessive. Unlike the parents in the news over the recent college admission scandals, I wasn’t involved in intensive parenting or overparenting or even in snowplow parenting. I never wanted to completely control their lives. But to fly near, just out of conscious view, maybe drop in a casserole, or an antibiotic, or a grammar edit on occasion.Helicopter parenting is a sin not of omission (failing to do something) but of commission (trying to do too much). Of trying too hard to be a good parent.Click To Tweet
I read all the books, so I knew that good parenting is preparing children to figure things out for themselves, to grow their faith, as they go along in life. Hovering early on, sure, but then looking for ways to stop hovering as soon as possible. (Sounds easier than it is.) Now that my own kids are all adults, I can see how, at times, my husband and I did a better job protecting our kids from the world than we did preparing them to lean on God as they live in its brokenness.
THE DANGERS OF HOVERING
In short, I learned that we can do too much for our children. And sometimes the effect is worse than them being less self-sufficient. Sometimes it can result in them being too self-sufficient. In being too human-sufficient. And not God-dependent enough.
Helicopter parenting models that God isn’t enough. His promises aren’t true; He can’t be trusted. That we have to fix our own problems or they don’t get fixed at all. And that’s never what we were trying to teach them.
From my journal:
I still hate that I am a different mom than my children’s friends have, a different mom than what I should be for them. This is not what I had planned. All the years I avoided the risk factors, all the years taking care of myself, mean nothing now. Yet, we are all learning as we adjust to life. A life not as we expected or designed, but to a life that He has graciously granted. Mostly, I am learning to depend on Him, something my do-it-yourself self may have missed without heart failure. I keep reminding myself that my job was never to expertly plan my life, but to follow the One who already has.
Faith requires an acknowledgement of helplessness. After all, it is in our weakness that His power is perfected, not in our wisely-designed human rescues. By helicoptering in, by failing to model this vulnerability, we miss tangible opportunities to pass on the Big Story. And we rob ourselves and our children of chances to cling to the only One who can really rescue any of us.
ADJUSTING TO SEPARATE AIRSPACE
My children all live in different states. My stomach aches to see that in print. My helicopter can no longer reach their airspace. I am learning to parent from afar:
- Making the most of technology – examining clothing choices and hair advice via full-length mirrors and Facetime;
- Meeting their friends on Instagram rather than in person;
- Adjusting holidays and birthdays to convenient space on collective calendars;
- Watching weather, wildfire, and active shooter reports for four locations rather than just my own.
Though my mothering days will never end, my helicoptering days are over. And probably for the better. Partly because I can see my early overprotective mistakes, I am trying to find peace with the distance. While I want them close to me, I’d rather have them close to Him. I prayed long ago for God to take them where they needed to be. To give them the dreams and opportunities to get them there, and give me the resilience to be good with it. I think He’s answered that prayer. Mostly.
For my part, I still want them closer. The empty nest is too clean, too controlled, too calm. But I am learning through these far-flung adult children and my own chronic illness, to bend my vision for how life is supposed to be. And it makes it easier to know He’s got all of us. Every day I remind myself that if the dream is containable in my frail hands, it’s not as big as God wants it to be. While all the details spill out of my grasp, I trust it is for a greater purpose.If the dream is containable in my frail hands, it’s not as big as God wants it to be.Click To Tweet
My diagnosis and ongoing condition have taught me something else I wish I had known before my children were grown and gone: We all have to feel a need for God for Him to be real in our lives. If we are rescued from every trial, we won’t have that vacuum, and we risk living our lives without Him.
For full disclosure, some days I still wonder what I did wrong. Why are other parents enjoying their children living here in the same community? What are mine doing so far away from me? But then I remember that prayer. And I realize that His perfect plan for them may not be to stay close. For some, God’s best for their lives may be here. For others, their charge requires separation and distance. As it did for the apostles, for Jonah, for Ruth…for Jesus.
So I’m focusing on not forcing my own plan. Or the plan He designed for someone else’s child. It still hurts. As John Townsend said,
A good parent will bear that pain for the sake of the child’s growth.
But sometimes, it sure is tempting to hop in the helicopter, or pick up the pen and fix it myself.