July 6, 2016

On Parenting: Tigers & Helicopters & Lighthouses, Oh My!


Parenting is not for the faint of heart.

When their oldest daughter graduated in June, the President and First Lady became kindred spirits with me.

On that day, they were not the most powerful couple in the world. They were parents watching their beautiful daughter stride proudly across the stage to accept the congratulations of her principal as she graduated from high school. When asked if he would be the speaker at his daughter’s graduation, the President declined, saying he would be too emotional.

Right there with you, Mr. President.

As I write this, my own daughter’s status as a newly-minted high school graduate and rising college freshman has just been confirmed.

We are—the Obamas and I—holding the same parenting space with our summer babies.

With all due respect to Amy Chua, who coined the term “tiger mom,” I propose the theory that all parents begin life as tigers. We all, from the moment the imminent arrival is confirmed, become fiercely protective of our children. As their first teachers, we help them to navigate their place in the world so that they can learn how to get along.

School brings a shift in roles, and some of us transition to helicopter parenting. Often defined as parents who take an excessive interest in the lives of their children, helicopter parenting was a term coined metaphorically as far back as 1969. It took on greater emphasis as the baby boomers’ millennial children grew to college age. College administrators brought it into everyday use in the 2000s to explain the behavior of parents who would call their children each morning to wake them up for class and complain to professors about grades the child had received.

My children always referred to me as a “hot air balloon” parent. They knew that I was interested in what was going on in their lives, but, as they explained, I only hovered closely when absolutely necessary. Sure I advocated for them with teachers, but not to the extreme, because it was and is important to me that they know how to advocate for themselves.

The next chapter of parenting—where the Obamas and I are now holding space, them with their oldest, me with all of my girls—is as a lighthouse.

A term coined in 2005 by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg in his book Raising Kids to Thrive, lighthouse parents are a natural parental evolutionary response to maturing children. The analogy is this: the children are the ships at sea navigating themselves through the sometimes calm, sometimes choppy waters of life, and the parents are the lighthouses standing at the ready along the shoreline to provide guidance when necessary.

Looking back on raising my children—as well as my own upbringing—I realize that the tiger and helicopter phases were but short interludes because it seems that both my parents and I were and are more comfortable standing on the shoreline.

I have friends, both with and without children, who believe that the Obamas are making a mistake by letting Malia take a gap year. I disagree with those friends. As a lighthouse for their child, I’m sure they realize that there is value for some children in not going directly from high school into college. I imagine there was a lot of discussion before the decision was made.

There was no such discussion in my house. My daughter is headed straight to college and I am polishing the lens in my lighthouse to make sure my light can be seen by her and her sisters.

There is no instruction manual that comes with parenthood. It is a baptism by fire. It requires fortitude, love and trust.

And it requires the ability to allow your child to learn that failure is an integral part of the journey on the road to success.


Author: Lois Person

Images: Greg Williams/FlickrAnita Ritenour/Flickr

Editors: Catherine Monkman; Toby Israel


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