Monday, October 17, 2005

From Helicopters to Eagles

Piggybacking on the discussion about parenting and education, I have some thoughts:

My Mom married her high school sweetheart too late to realize the difference between love and lust. Her independent mind and strong spirit led her to leave the relationship which was inevitably failed for doom. My Mom was a nurse and a single mom. For a few years, her and my sister lived together in an apartment. My Mom was lucky enough to benefit from a supportive family that made single parenting less difficult.

My father left college right before his final semester to visit his father in the hospital. His father had his second heart attack. My grandfather was a self-employed businessman, so if he was in the hospital, the income wasn’t flowing, and my Dad’s tuition bills weren’t paid. To this day, my Dad is still three courses short of a college degree.

Soon, my parents met. My Dad, as I am sure he would tell you today, probably couldn’t decipher whether he loved my mother or my older sister more. My parents married after a couple years of dating. Their week long honeymoon to the Sheraton was cut short because they missed my eldest sister, whom my Dad adopted.

When my parents met, my father was working in the mailroom at Johnson & Johnson. Within a few years, my father climbed the corporate ladder enough to keep us comfortable. He chose quality time with his kids over pay raises and longer hours. I am the fourth of my parent’s children. I lived most of my life in a modest but warm suburban home that my parents strived to afford, so that we could enjoy quality schools and safe neighborhoods.

My parents seemed to know when and when not to apply the pressure. No “Cs” was the house rule. Otherwise, we were taught to be ourselves, to stand up for the under dog, and to find happiness above all in life. In stark contrast to the hovering helicopter parents Aspazia referred to, my parents were the “spread-winged eagle” parents: they encouraged us to lift ourselves from the nest, open our wings and fly. (Cliché, but fitting.)

There were times my parents did apply the pressure. When my Dad was offered a position in Milan, Italy for two years, they dragged us kicking and screaming. Two years later, we didn’t want to leave Italy.

There were, of course, drawbacks to my parent’s being anything-but-the-“helicopter” parents. My two middle siblings got into a good deal of trouble. They literally fought for the under dog, often got caught up with under dog, and of course, invested in individuals whose upbringing wasn’t as secure as ours was. They made mistakes, plenty of them—mistakes my father still harbors guilt over.

Today, I will be the first in my family of six to receive a bachelor’s degree. I often feel like my family sees at me in two ways that make me unnervingly uncomfortable: they see me with great pride and they see me as someone different. They are proud that I have accomplished so much and they see me as different—maybe even as someone better—for creating this life for myself. This saddens me. I don’t hold my achievements above any of theirs. They are all loving, caring, compassionate, dynamic people. Thinking of my family leaves my heart brimming with pride and excitement. As the youngest, I have benefited from watching them struggle on their journeys. I have learned which paths lead to an easier life. I benefit from perspective. I am in no way “better.”

My family provides a fascinating contrast to the helicopter families Aspazia describes. In one, you see pressure to succeed according to societal standards. In the other, you see encouragement to chart your own path.

Both scenarios are choc-full of tragedy: the burdened, pressured kids suffering under the hovering of fearful parents, or the idealistic, free-wandering kids under the fear-filled watch of their parents. There is tragedy in a life where pressures and expectations to succeed in a certain way quash the spirit of children. There is also tragedy in a life where parents proverbially ask their children to spread their wings and fly: they can crash.

In the end, these two groups do not fall into simply, contrasting extremes on a continuum of parenting scales. It may be easy to interpret these stories in such a simplistic light. However, in the day-in-day-out experiences of parenting, parents often alter their style and approach; they often swing back and forth between protection of safety and promotion of self-pursuit. I believe we are not best served not by judging and critiquing these parents as if they are manifestations of some natural propensity within human kind. I believe our efforts as concerned parents, future parents, and citizens are best channeled by asking why these parents are influenced to act in such fashions. If we find—as we likely will—that a significant source of the tragedy of these helicopters and spread-winged-eagles is the society we live in, then we have some serious questions to ask.

With this all on my mind, I can’t help but thinking of my junior year in high school. My brother got into some trouble and my parents spent their entire savings to help him. Shortly after, they filed for bankruptcy and the house and possessions were to be taken. In the midst of all of this, a friend of my sister was kicked out of her house for getting pregnant. Her helicopter parents were disgusted. During this trying time, my parents accepted her and her child into our home. They couldn’t pay their mortgage, but my parents found a way to help buy diapers and formula. In the end, the presence of a joyful baby may have been the best thing for my family at the time. Now, many years later, as my older sisters each bring a child into the world, I am sure they will struggle with the parameters of parenting. I assume it will be an experience of cognitive dissonance, of looking both critically and nostalgically upon the tradition that they come from and asking the question that plagues every parent, “What can I do to give my child the best life?”