I Was a Latchkey Kid, So Why Am I a Helicopter Parent?
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I Was a Latchkey Kid, So Why Am I a Helicopter Parent?

The Gen X parenting struggle is real

two kids on bikes in the 1980s
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As a kid in the mid-1980s, my friends and I played at a place we called Water Moccasin Pond. It was full of poisonous snakes and drowning hazards, and completely unsupervised by adults.

My parents, a loner Vietnam vet dad and a hippie mom, had no idea that we were tempting fate. If asked, my boomer parents would have said I was outside and left it at that. Remember, the parents that raised Gen Xers needed a public service announcement to remind them to check on their kids at 10 pm. 

Our generation has been dubbed the “latchkey kids.” Our clocks were the street lamps on the corner, and Eddie Vedder understood us better than our own fathers. We got up on our own to bike to school, and came home and made Hamburger Helper. At times, it was as if Lord of the Flies was not a work of fiction at all, and we were all down at Water Moccasin Pond wondering how big a snake nest could get.

For my parents, even the modern term Free-Range Parenting” wouldn’t cover their style. It was more of a “good luck, let us know how it turns out” type of parenting. Gen Xers learned to be self-reliant and problem solvers. 

So why have so many of us gone the other way, into full-on helicopter parenting?

I used to hover around my children when they were younger, always on high alert for possible dangers. But now they’re teens and don’t need the 24/7 surveillance anymore — because we have technology that does it for us. I’m able to track their location, their grades, and even read their texts. The only thing I don’t have access to yet is their inner thoughts, and I’m sure there’ll be an app for that soon.

This is the Gen X dichotomy: We romanticize the freedoms of our pasts, and then do everything in our power to keep our kids from experiencing anything remotely like it. I want my kids to have uncurated freedom, but I also don’t want them anywhere near poisonous snakes. I want my daughter to have the freedom to be her true self, to make mistakes and learn from them, all while being constantly monitored so nothing bad ever happens to her. 

The School Superintendents Association coined the phrase Stealth Fighter Parenting to describe the Gen X parenting style. As they see it, we let most things go and encourage individualism until an issue reaches our threshold of importance. And when that happens, we charge full steam ahead. As a generation that often didn’t have a support system, it seems logical that we would want to supply one. 

That feels right, but only to a point. Gen X doesn’t have one style of parenting, because we were raised to distrust authority or anyone claiming to have all the answers. So we’ll try it all — helicopter parenting, gentle parenting, attachment parenting, authoritative parenting. If it works, we’ll keep doing it. If it doesn’t? OK, what’s next?

If we must label ourselves, I’d call us the Figure It Out Generation. There is no absolute correct way to parent, so we’ll fake it till we make it. That’s what Gen X has been doing our whole lives.

I recently handed over the car keys to my daughter for the first time and told her to “go do teenage stuff.” I gave her a curfew time to be home, and I let her know that she didn’t have to call or text me unless something was wrong.

It was a scarier moment for me than jumping into Water Moccasin Pond. That’s not what my heart wants. My heart wants her to check in with me every 10 minutes. But I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to let her have her freedom, even just a taste of my latchkey youth. I’m trying to figure it out. It’s not easy. But parenting isn’t supposed to be easy.

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