From Playground Food Chain, To Helicopter Parenting


May 27, 2016


Pushing, punching, biting, hair-pulling was all a regular part of how my younger brother and I settled our differences as children. The fights were always over very important issues: a favorite T-shirt ‘borrowed’ without permission, bathroom lights switched off while someone was still inside or a raided and consumed packet of candy that had been carefully hoarded. We clashed, we threatened, we hit, we refused to speak to each other. Then, at some point, we found a way back – all by ourselves – to a truce.

On most days, our parents treated our bickering like ambient noise, remaining stoutly uninvolved in our battles. They believed children had to resolve their own issues. There were times we would drag them in, by taking complaints to them, or our fights would escalate to such a volume and level of aggression that they felt compelled to get involved.

But rarely so. We knew from experience that, once parents entered the fray, we could land ourselves in a fate far worse than having to give up precious candy; irrespective of who had perpetrated the trouble, all parties would be grounded.

So we learned to find our own way of dealing with squabbles — practice restraint, compromise or simply sulk in different corners, fantasizing about a time in the future when the other was no longer under the family roof or when one could kill one’s sibling without fear of consequences.

Arguments weren’t the only time our parents were hands off. We had many occasions to hang out with other kids unsupervised, whether it was at the cricket game in the gully, playtime in the building garden or the wait at the school bus stop. In these parent-free zones, we were free to choose how and who we played with.

Your place in the ‘playground food chain’ was determined by age, size, agility, or the ownership of the cricket bat. You worked your way up it by building alliances (based on blood, shared-building loyalty, school bus camaraderie), or simply by being useful. My brother, the littlest runt, was always included in the team because he was ever eager to fetch balls that rolled under the car.

In the process of finding our place in the world, we kids were constantly testing new ways of being and behaving, and that affected the rhythms of our friendships. In one brief phase, I built a tight little bus-stop girl-gang of my own. We were close, we were cool, and we would tease the smaller kids.

I am not proud of my behaviour now, and I admit it could have gotten out of hand. But we were a community of peers calibrating force. If we built a reputation for being bullies, we got left out of many playground games and fast learned, with no words spoken, to play nice, to negotiate, to compromise and have the courage and vocabulary to advocate for ourselves.

As adults, my generation appears much more informed, engaged and vigilant than our parents. But in a desire to keep our kids safe and emotionally secure, we’ve crossed a line; play is no longer a parent-free zone. Kids don’t simply go down to run around with whomever is available; dates are scheduled. Chemistry be damned, we pick mates for them — ‘smart but gentle’ preferred; anyone remotely feisty or ‘slow,’ shunned. We invented the term ‘helicopter parenting.’

In this fishbowl, children must play nice all the time and the definitions of acceptable behavior are increasingly proscribed by watching adults. It’s as bad for the parents as it is for the kids; God forbid you are the parents of a child who occasionally teases his mates. Prepare yourself for a life of walking on egg shells and endless apologies.

From the playground to swim lessons to theatre auditions, we parents are omnipresent, watching children with hawk eyes, checking them, advocating for them, even fighting their fights for them. Of course, we want our children safe from serious bullying and to have the best chance of success. But the solution isn’t to plant ourselves as the self-proclaimed umpire in a children’s game of cricket to ensure “fairness.” (As Husband did, with the best of intentions, one evening, much to our son’s horror. It hasn’t happened since.)

If we’re planting at all, we should plant confidence in our kids, a belief in their own ability to take care of themselves. But that only grows from standing among peers in the playground and fighting one’s own battles, by walking away in a huff and finding a way to build a truce when things are calmer.

I may have felt left in the dark growing up — in the bathroom, on the playground — but it helped me find the light on my own. I hope I’m letting my kids learn the same.


Written By Swati Apte

Swati Apte lives in Mumbai and is passionate about initiatives at the intersection of arts, social enterprise, and leadership development. She reads paper books and watches youtube videos with equal alacrity, and gently coaxes her friends, husband, and her two children into adventures to tops of mountains or into deep forests.


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