Plenty has been written about the drastic downside of helicopter parenting — or the practice of hovering over our children, protecting them from every discomfort and failure, that they grow up to be incompetent, anxious adults with a sense of entitlement so crippling it stands to undo our economy (sorry to blame you for everything, Millennials. Just regurgitating what I've read).
Once again, the discussion focuses too heavily on the poor children. What about the parents — and our bank accounts?
Helicopter parenting and the legal and social pressure to ensure our children are supervised full-time into teenhood and beyond is financially devastating for parents.
The website for the Office of Family Services for New York, where I live, addresses the issue of how old a child can be to be left alone with this:
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. All children develop at their own rate, and with their own special needs and abilities. Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. Likewise, there are some teenagers who are too irresponsible or who have special needs that limit their ability to be safe if they are left alone.
That is right — the state STARTS the left-at-home-alone conversation at age 12! This lack of freedom and void of risk-taking for the child is not only guaranteed to stunt that kid's development, but also his mom and dad's financial viability. If that tween is not home alone, that means that he needs to be with an adult — either a sitter in his home, or another's home, or in an after-school program, which all parents know is usually exorbitantly expensive.
In a discussion on Facebook about this, someone asked:
[clickToTweet tweet=”Is helicopter parenting the new status symbol?” quote=”Is helicopter parenting the new status symbol?”]
Others pointed out that helicopter parenting is race and class specific. In other words: It is only rich white communities that insist on hovering over their children, because it is mostly rich, white people who can afford it. In lower income neighborhoods, kids have more freedom because there are no other options, since there are fewer full-time, at-home parents, or money for expensive, constant sitters.
Examples of how the helicopter parent mentality costs you financially
Lots of ink has been paid to the high cost of child care pre-kindergarten, a phenomenon so dire that it can be solely blamed for the ever-stubborn gender pay gap, as it discourages mothers from remaining in the work force, investing in their careers and building wealth. What has not been reported, is how our current dysfunctional parenting culture promotes and enforces child care mandates well beyond any historical precedence — and parents are required to pay a financial price for it.
Example 1: I believe my 7 and 9 year old are perfectly fine playing at the playground across the street from my apartment by themselves, but other parents and the law think otherwise (last year I received a threatening phone call from my 7-year-old's first grade teacher after she learned on that one day he walked two blocks to the bus stop alone. The threat is real). So, instead of working, I am there after school staring blankly at children play. Or, I pay a sitter $10-15 per hour to stare blankly and watch them play. At the crowded playground I see parents of all classes, races and nationalities (I live in Queens, where the immigrant population is high), all of whom look like they have any number of better things to do than watch their children climb uber-safe playground equipment with other children whose parents are also standing within feet of them — reducing chances of exploration or brawls to zero. The main thing I would like to be doing at 4 p.m. is working and earning, and I am a lesser professional, mother and citizen as a result.
Other mothers do pay for this care. A fellow single mom who lives in Chicago is forced to pay $20 to a sitter every weekday afternoon her 12-year-old daughter has tennis practice at courts inside of her gated community, located 1/4 a mile from her front door. The tennis program's policy is that the kids cannot leave unattended by an adult. Since the going rate in this urban area is $20 per hour, and the sitter charges a one-hour minimum, this mom (who works like 70 percent of U.S. mothers of minor-aged children), forks over the sum.
Example 2: At age 11, instead of being coddled by my own single mom, not only would I spend hours at home alone or with my younger brothers, I sometimes babysat young kids. Babies, even. Because I was young, I would be paid a nominal sum, say $5 per hour in today's dollars — which was a great help to many parents of young children who did indeed need child care. By age 12, I had a summer job detasseling corn for minimum wage. Today, many parents would believe an 11-year old needs a sitter, as does the younger child, of course. So now, between those two families, instead of total output being $5 per hour, the total is $30 per hour for sitters ($15 per hour x 2 families — the skyrocketing rate for babysitters is yet another example of our collective heightened value of safety for our kids).
Example 3: Since we have determined that an 11-year-old is too young to be alone, and therefore earn money at a part-time job, that thrusts more spending pressure on the tweens parents, just as the cost of extracurriculars, clothes, devices and other expenses skyrockets year-after-year.
Example 4: Aside from financial expense, managing, booking and communicating with a host of sitters and nannies takes up valuable mindspace, which is disproportionately taken on by women who could better use this energy to build careers, give back to their communities, or develop hobbies. Or, just think about other things than managing babysitting for capable teenagers.
Example 5: Since mothers are disproportionately the caretakers of children — both inside and outside of marriage, whether they are employed or not — all this pressure to compromise everything in our lives to constantly supervise children holds us back as a gender. When women are perpetually doing the math on whether to work late to earn a promotion, or rush home to be in proximity of a middle-schooler as he gets off the school bus, then the freaking pay gap will never close.
What is the answer? How can we turn this around?
How to stop wasting money on child care when your kid is too old
- Get hip to Free-Range Parenting. This is a movement and book by the same name, by my friend Lenore Skenazy, who has been called “the worst parent in the world” because she wants your kids to play outside, get exercise, develop into a cool person and generally be normal. She has all the facts about how the world is way safer today than it was in 70s, 80s and 90s when you and I were growing up, running around the neighborhood and spending hours watching Price Is Right reruns with no parent home. Listen to her on my podcast here.
- Do what you feel is right as a mom. If you want your kids to play outside, or walk to the bus stop or stay home for a few hours while you go to dinner with your friend, then do that.
- Change the parenting culture. This means promoting your newfound free-range parenting with other parents. In a fit of frustration, two hours ago I posted my thoughts on the economic impact of helicopter parenting, and have gotten hundreds of commiserating affirmatives. I am guilty of cowering to the pressure from other parents to hover over my kids, but I do buck it, too. My children walk together two blocks to the bus stop most mornings. I run errands while they play at the playground. Saturday mornings they walk around the corner from our building to buy fresh croissants for the family. It really takes one person to give others permission to do the right thing. Then the snowball takes effect. Be that one person.
- Make your own alternative child care options. If you do need your kid watched — scream it loud and clear and recruit other families in your neighborhood to create collaborative systems. Maybe you take turns stalking your collective brood at the playground. Rotate houses where the kids play. Chip in to pay a teenager to take the a bunch of families' littles to the pool. Whatever. Do what you can to decrease the adult-to-kid ratio, and the increase your bottom line.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.