Balance Helicopter With Free-Range Parenting

A picture of parents watching their children at a playground
Monalyn Gracia/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

You won't find a livelier debate than when someone designated as a helicopter parent faces off with a free-range parent. Are you an over-the-top hovering, smothering helicopter parent or a my child can sink or swim on her own without my help free-range parent? Chances are, you're a little bit of both. Balance helicopter parenting with free-range parenting through the most common scenarios these parents face.


While no one wants to see a child fail, helicopter parents and free-range parents tend to take different approaches when it comes to failure.

Helicopter Parent: Your child will not fail at any cost. If she comes to you at 8 p.m. to tell you her science fair project is due tomorrow, you will kiss her goodnight and tuck her in so you can start painting styrofoam balls to create an entire galaxy full of colorful planets for her to turn in at school by 8 a.m.

Free-Range Parent: If your child doesn't complete her assignment, what she does next is up to her. She can stay up and finish her project or she can go to school tomorrow and tell the teacher she didn't do her assignment.

The Balance: Raising a responsible child who becomes a responsible adult won't happen if you're stepping in all of the time. But as parents, we do it all the time. We finish homework, make derby cars and turn to social media to hit up our friends to buy cookies so our kids can win the big contest prize.

Balance the two parenting styles by taking a step back. You decide if your child will face a consequence at home for not completing her assignment and let her face the teacher the next day without anything in hand to turn in. Let your child show up to the big race without the car that was supposed to be finished two weeks ago. You don't have to send your kids door-to-door to sell cookies but you don't have to solicit your friends just so your child can be the big winner.

Kids can fail. They'll learn from it. They can even thrive afterward. And chances are, they won't make that mistake that set them up to fail again.

Being Alone in Public

One of the most controversial headlines centers on children being allowed to be in public alone. From children playing in the park alone to riding the subway by themselves, society has freely weighed in on these news stories that have gone viral not just in parenting circles but globally.

Helicopter Parent: Letting your child be alone in public is not an option. Too much can happen and the "what ifs?" can keep you up at night. When your child is on the playground, you're not too far away and definitely not out of sight.

Free-Range Parent: Why can't your child walk to the park alone and then play on the playground by herself for an hour or two? Your child doesn't need a leash so why confine her? You've taught your child to be self-sufficient and she knows how to get help if it's needed.

The Balance: In today's society, kids can be picked up by the police if an adult is not present, even if you're running into the store to grab milk while your child sits alone in the car. And in some states, even though there is a federal law that says you can allow your children to walk to and from school alone, state and local laws still trump that ruling. Know the laws in your area.

While keeping an eye on your children is important, of course, so is teaching them how to be independent. There are ways to teach this valuable lesson without you feeling like you need to release your child into the city streets even if there are no laws against you doing so. Stay in view at the park but not right on her heels as she plays. Let her go into the ice cream store to buy her own scoop while you watch from the window. Watch her walk to her friend's house two doors down. A little bit of cautious freedom goes a long way to a child.

Micromanaging Versus Hands Off

They're so little and cute. We always want to help them. But there's a big difference in helping your child and borderline hindering her from growing into a perfectly capable adult. On the flip side, you're not helping your child if you're watching her struggle with something purely for the sake of not interfering.

Helicopter Parent: They're kids. They need help. Where helicopter parenting gets a bad rap here is when you are overparenting your child. Your 10-year-old can cut the food on her plate herself but you'd rather do it. She can put her school books in the backpack but you might as well put them in to make sure she doesn't forget anything. She can tie her own shoes but the double knot you put in those laces will keep her from falling. And scissors? Forget about it.

Free-Range Parent: You're not watching your child have difficulty completing a task for your own entertainment. You're focused on letting her grow and learn by finishing that task herself. You teach your child how to cut her food, where her books go and how to tie her shoes but you're not going to step in and help her out when you've already taught her these important lessons. And scissors? She has to learn how to use them, cuts and all, some time.

The Balance: It's okay to step in every now and then as long as you're not overdoing it. If you find yourself leaning to the helicopter parenting side, ease back a bit and let her figure out how to do more on her own. She may surprise you. If you're on the free-range parenting side, go ahead and double knot that shoe when she needs it. Both helicopter parenting and free-range parenting can come together in perfect harmony here to help your child learn, grow and start to do more things on her own.


Boundaries do exist in both parenting styles. Usually, though, how the parent acts within those boundaries separates the two parenting styles.

Helicopter Parent: Boundaries are typically laid out not far from where you are. Your child is free to play in the backyard because it's fenced. The stove is too hot so your child has to stay away from a certain distance or you may panic. Your child can go on a nature walk as long as you're holding her hand the whole time. School field trips are fine as long as mom gets to go too. As your child grows, leaving those boundaries can become harder for you and may even result in you calling her every day when she's off at college just to make sure she's staying within campus boundaries and doing what you expect.

Free-Range Parent: Boundaries vary and are based on the parent's attitude, just like a lot of free-range parenting decisions. Although the front yard isn't fenced, your child is allowed to play there alone because she's been taught not to go past the curb. Your child knows the stove is hot so if she touches it while you're cooking, that's a lesson she needs to learn firsthand as many times as it's needed. You may tag along on a nature walk but your child is free to explore the woods around you. And school field trips are a part of the learning experience that you embrace so you stay home. College is a non-issue. Your child became self-sufficient in your eyes long before she was in high school.

The Balance: Boundaries are good for children and that's why both parenting styles generally put them to use. The key is to adapt your boundaries to the activity. Unless you're walking next to a cliff, a path in the woods can be a great place for a child to explore near you but not attached to you. Touching a hot stove can be so dangerous it sends your child to the hospital so a no hangout boundary is a good rule. Let your boundaries ebb and flow, contracting when the situation is clearly dangerous to a child but expanding when you can let go and watch her branch out on her own safely.


Are you giving your child too much attention or not enough? Depends on who you ask.

Helicopter Parent: Helicopter parents are notoriously labeled as the kind who practically blanket their children with endless attention. Of course, you love your children and want to give them all of your undivided attention. But you get a bad wrap because you don't just play with your child non-stop, you can even feel guilty if you're not spending 100% of your time focused on your children. Another form of attention for the helicopter parent revolves around a continual need to remind your child to be careful, watch out or stay close. The constant reminders of danger plague the helicopter parent who is simply wanting to keep her child safe.

Free-Range Parent: It's okay for your child to play alone in a room away from you. You encourage it. At the playground, you may be the one parked on a bench playing games on your phone or checking your email. You give her plenty of attention, just not 24/7. She's an individual and will do just fine without you playing with her every waking moment or being her safety spotter at the playground.

The Balance: It's okay for your child to play by herself. It's also good for her. It also gives you a chance to have some downtime too. At home or out in public, taking a step back gives you the chance to just be you and enjoy this time without having to constantly worry your child is going to fall and scrape her knee. If she's walking on her hands down the slide, you're there with a, "Be careful" or "Don't do that!" But you don't have to focus your attention with laser precision on her every waking moment.

While both parenting styles have their pluses and minuses, finding the right balance of helicopter parenting and free-range parenting depends on a number of factors, including your own comfort level. Decide what's best for your family and vary up your choices as you raise your child. You'll be glad you did and so will your child.

Was this page helpful?