The first several days after we dropped off our oldest at sleepaway camp for the first time were the hardest and it had absolutely nothing to do with her. In fact, even though it was her first time at the camp for a full session, she transitioned away from me so smoothly at drop-off, you would have thought that she had been there for years.

No, I was the problem.

In my spare time, I was scouring the camp’s photo site and Facebook for a glimpse of my child. I was fighting off the urge to call the camp’s parent contact to check in on her. In my head, I was composing long messages to e-mail to her. In short, I was treading dangerously close to being the helicopter parent that I have always dreaded.

The difference between helicopter parenting and being an innovative parent lies in knowing when to pay attention to the trees and when to focus on the forest. Or to put it in meteorological terms, checking the temperature versus paying attention to the climate.

Checking your child’s “temperature” is like constantly sticking your hand out the window to see what is going on right now. You can sucked into whether they are hot or cold, happy or sad,  engaged or feeling alone very easily and become hyper focused on where things are at that moment. This hyper focus is one of the dangers of helicopter parenting. We become so focused on the small things that we lose sense of the bigger picture and hamper our kids’ abilities to develop their natural coping skills. For example, this could present in constantly asking the camp parent contact to check in on my kid or visiting an online gradebook daily to look for variations in grades.

On the other hand, paying attention to the climate means keeping a sense of where things are going and looking for patterns. Within any climate, there will be ups and downs, but they make sense when you look at them in relation to each other. With this focus, you can create space for your child to grapple with the ups and downs of life. For me, this meant waiting until the camp called me (and it only took 2 days!) to give me a regular check in on how my daughter was doing. Or it could mean checking that online gradebook once every few weeks.

In a society where it is so easy to connect with our kids through their phones or with the other adults in their lives, we can easily fall into the trap of constantly paying attention to temperature and ignoring the climate. When you get the urge to constantly check on the temperature, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there an emergency going on that I need to respond to? Real emergencies involve physical and mental health concerns that can have a lasting impact. Forgetting homework is not an emergency.
  • What would happen if I created space for my child to manage this situation? Would they build resilience and coping skills?
  • How does this situation relate to what I know about my child’s climate? Is it a huge outlier or within a comfortable range?
  • Am I meeting a need that my child has or am I meeting a need that I have for contact or information? If it is the latter, think about how to delay that need for gratification.

The challenge is balancing when the helicopter needs to hover in close and when you should back off and allow your child to grow.