Room to Breathe

I am not a grandparent—yet. But my daughters are talking about having children, so when I came across the quiz “Are You a Helicopter Grandparent?” at, I thought I’d give it a try. The quiz presents five scenarios, with three answers for each. Depending on your score, you are deemed to be either “too hands-off,” “middle ground,” or a “helicopter” grandparent.

Most of our moms were at home with us full time. As long as we told them where we were going, who we were with, and when we’d be back, we were free to roam the woods, fields, and neighborhoods. If we ran into trouble, we could knock on a door where there was likely another mother available to help.

By the time we had kids of our own, it was common practice for both parents to work full time outside the home, the first generation to do so. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, our kids came home from school to an empty house. We instructed them to lock the door, stay inside, and not answer the door until we came home—hence the term “latch-key kids.” Is it possible our fear-driven habits were the start of what is now called the “helicopter” parent phenomenon? Has over supervising and over scheduling hindered children’s ability to assess risk, be resourceful, and have a relationship with nature? What can we do as grandparents to encourage our grandkids to be more free range and develop a closer connection to nature?

Why we hover

Why do we feel we have to protect kids from every physical or mental discomfort? The website for Let Grow, an organization that “counters the culture of overprotection,” blames “the twin fears stalking today’s parents: Either their kids will be snatched by a demonic clown…or they won’t get into Harvard.”

But let’s look at the statistics. According to the organization Free-Range Kids, rates of violent crime and the risk of child abduction by strangers are very low.

There’s another reason we hover. We’re afraid we’ll be accused of neglect. According to the Free-Range Kids and Parents Bill of Rights, “Our children have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.” It sounds extreme, but a few parents have been threatened that their children will be placed in foster care if they allow them to walk home from a park, take a subway, or play outside of their homes on their own.

Writing on the Psychology Today website, Let Grow co-founder Pete Gray says, “Children are designed, by nature, to spend hours per day playing with other children, independently of adults.  In such play they practice all sorts of physical and mental skills; discover and pursue their passions; and learn how to create their own activities, solve their own problems, get along with peers, and control their emotions and impulses.”

According to Gray, a lack of independent time can actually be harmful for our grandchildren. He links an increase in mental disorders to a decrease in independent play. Children’s creativity suffers as their freedom decreases. Down the road, overprotection can create depressed, anxious, and dependent college students who don’t know how to deal with everyday struggles, disappointments, and failures.

Resourcefulness matters

“Resourcefulness, the ability to meet challenges in a variety of ways, is a by-product of creative intelligence,” according to child development expert Karen Stephens. “As children develop resourcefulness, they learn to trust their instincts and unique abilities.”

As grandparents, we can help our grandchildren develop the resources they need to become competent, confident, responsible, and happy young adults. Encouraging free play that allows children to develop life skills such as the ability to assess risk, take chances, and solve problems on their own is necessary for them to develop into happy and healthy people. Play is their work.

It’s not easy to go from over scheduling and over supervising to allowing children unstructured time to walk to school, to a friend’s house, or home from the park on their own. But here are some tips on how to help parents loosen the reins:

  • Provide guidance—discuss and determine age-appropriate free time and geographical range with parents.
  • “Emphasize “as safe as necessary” over “as safe as possible,” suggests Mariana Brussoni, a University of British Columbia professor who has spent years researching the benefits of risky play.
  • Explore the neighborhood with your grandchildren. Talk about streetlights, crosswalks, and pose “what if” scenarios. What would they do if they ran into trouble? Who would they go to? Point out potential dangers so they can gradually reach a point where they have enough knowledge to stay safe.
  • Involve children in decision making.
  • Foster exploration.
  • Communicate, adjust, negotiate. It takes energy and time. And remember—it’s OK to say “no” or “not yet.”

Help them get outside

Children especially need free playtime in nature. Studies show that stress reduction, good physical and mental health, and family bonding all result from establishing a connection with the great outdoors.

Richard Louv is author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. On the Children & Nature Network website, he and other experts list ways to help grandkids develop a relationship with nature:

  • Take a hike. Observe trees, plants, tide pools, animals, and weather. Gaze at clouds. Catch frogs. Watch fireflies.
  • Go camping. Even a backyard campout provides a chance to look at the stars and marvel at the moon.
  • Watch birds. Invest in binoculars and opt for a good field guide rather than a bird app.
  • Grow a garden. Watch a seed sprout into a plant that flowers, goes to seed, and starts all over again. Go berry picking.
  • Create a special place outside where grandkids can keep a nature journal, draw, paint, read, or collect things.
  • Go earthing: barefoot walking on the beach or grass. Lay down on a forest floor and look up into the canopy.
  • Keep collapsible chairs in the car trunk for nature breaks.

Grandparenting isn’t our opportunity for a do-over. We had our chance; now it’s our kids’ turn. But we can still play an important role in helping to raise the next generation, keeping in mind that communicating with mom and dad and respecting their parenting styles is crucial to maintaining a good relationship. Together, we can encourage resourcefulness, give our grandchildren more responsibility, and help them connect with natureso they grow to be confident children who are ready for solo adventures.

In other words: let go, get out of the way, and let them play!

As a freelance writer, Cathy Kuntz finds inspiration in the wilderness, waters, and people of the West Coast. She is passionate about stream-keeping, fly-fishing, and writing personal memoirs. Cathy helps people celebrate their lives and legacies by creating unique photo memoir books. Learn more at


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