Helicopter vs. Free Range: Do We Need A Different Kind Of Metaphor For Parenting Styles?


A dad teaching his son to ride a bike.We see it on the bestseller lists and on the morning news shows. The question posed is always the same; what kind of mother are you? The parenting advice field is a multi-million dollar machine, advising parents on which parenting style to embrace to raise the most productive, resilient, and successful children. And everyone seems to have their own answer to this confusing question. 

I’ve noticed that some of the labels assigned to parenting have a proximity metaphor. Are you a helicopter mom? That refers to someone who hovers in the immediate space of her children, always ready to catch a fall or even prevent one from ever happening. Or, are you a free-range mom? This is a parent who lets her child wander, perhaps without full knowledge of his whereabouts. It’s hard to make sense of all these “mom-aphors” and to grasp what style fits best for you and your family.

In my experience, I have found myself to be both of these types of moms at different times.

For me when my children were young, I was anxious and fearful of the newfound responsibility to “role model” and mold my young children into who I wanted them to be. I could have been described then as a helicopter or hovering mom. Now that I have teens, I struggle with the free-roaming approach. They seem to need me to be around, but not in their immediate zone.

I’ve come to discover that maybe these metaphors don’t accurately capture the tensions where we, as parents, can position ourselves in relation to our children. Instead of distance vs. closeness, maybe parenting can be thought of as a more dynamic, fluid metaphor. Like when teaching a child to ride a bike, you move yourself closer or farther depending on what is needed at that specific moment. 

When my son was five, he took his training wheels off for the first time. I stood behind him, holding tight to the back of the seat, so he could get comfortable with the idea of balancing himself. He couldn’t fall. He knew I was holding him up. As he got better acclimated, I loosened my grip. He pedaled forward. After a bit, I carefully let go. As he was getting the hang of it, he fell a few times. I was there to watch him get up and encourage him back on the bike. 

This metaphor of riding a bike feels right to me now for how I approach parenting. Back then, I knew when it was time to let go of the back of the bike seat by both my own knowledge that my son was comfortable and stable on the bike AND by his signals, too. I had to gauge his level of ability for me to let go of the bike by feeling his readiness. I had to listen to his signals and signs, and that is what prompted me to know what he was capable of. 

You see, if I didn’t let him go, he wouldn’t know what it would feel like to fall.

He wouldn’t have the experience of failure. And, if I weren’t close behind, running just next to him, shouting him words of encouragement, that fall could feel devastating and he’d be alone in his defeat. Knowing I was close by, encouraging and supporting him, yet allowing him to fall or fail, at times, has now become the place where I approximate my distance as a parent.

Paying attention to my son, what he needed, and understanding his cues was empowering for him. And, as a parent, knowing when to let go of the back of the seat and let him try on his own is my ongoing struggle to ponder as he pedals off into his teen years.


  1. I like your bike analogy very much – its a great example of finding a balance as a parent. One of the concerns child behavorists are expressing is that as parents we have over encouraged and over supported our children to the point where they are unable to self soothe over any degree of problem. What concerns me about your post is the sentence “that fall could feel devastating… he’d be alone in his defeat”. Devastating is a strong word. And one used a lot by overly supportive parents. Devastating is what happens when a child loses a parent to cancer. It is not what happens to a child who falls off his bike and you are not there instantly to soothe and encourage.

    All children must learn that they can fall by themselves and pick themselves up and they are strong enough to carry on alone. Its how they will learn how to deal with defeats in school, with friends, in love, and in life. Obviously this lesson not something that has to be learned at 5 years old and the first time without training wheels. But its a lesson that won’t be “devastating” unless you put that level of negative energy into it.

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