Rise of the Tigger Mom: A Hovering Parent Goes Free-Range

Laid-back new childrearing approach urges cutting the cord

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

The other day at playgroup, my son, Sam, hit another baby in the face. He didn’t mean to hurt him—it was more like a wave gone awry—but still, it was open-hand, at point-blank range, like the first blow in the kind of slap fight you might see break out on Maury Povich. The other baby winced, and I swooped in from my crouch approximately two feet away to break it up. And then, from across the room, I heard the other child’s mother start to … laugh.

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“Awesome,” she said, not making the slightest move to get up from her laid-back lean against the wall. I stared at her. Was she drunk? (Unlikely; it was noon.) Did she just not give a shit? Again, no; I’d seen her kissing her son and feeding him orange slices just moments before. As her baby shrugged off the attack and crawled over to investigate a nearby wall outlet, I had to accept the truth: in the world of helicopter parenting, she was the equivalent of a T-bird on blocks. And I was a military Black Hawk.

I only have a single child, who just turned 1 last month, so I’m still figuring out my parenting style. It feels a little bit like the first semester of college, only instead of “finding myself” in plastic handles of vodka and pilfered Marlboros, I’m navel-gazing through pastel sippy cups, my new identity as a mother being built block by phthalate-free block.

I’m finding out new and upsetting things about my maternal instincts every day. What would I do if the baby rolled off the bed? (Answer: scream.) What would I do if my baby crawled away from me? (Answer: hover like I’m in a gas station bathroom.) What would I do if my baby vomited into my cleavage? (Answer: tweet it.) I too mocked Alicia Silverstone for pre-masticating her child’s food only to sneak into the kitchen to furiously chew and spit out chunks of meatball (hey, it was quicker than the baby-food grinder).

I crawl around after Sam on the floor of our apartment, shoving my body in between him and any surface sharper than a beanbag (although I guard him from those, too, due to the suffocation risks). We have so many baby gates that I could medal in the 400-meter hurdles. I seize with anxiety when I stroll around Park Slope and note that compared to the tank-like Bugaboos most moms are pushing, my “lightweight” stroller looks like a rickshaw, dangerously open to the elements.

IF RECENT OP-ED ARTICLES are any indication, the majority of American parents are stifling their children’s independence by monitoring their every move and wringing their hands over every possible harm that could befall them. Babies and children are on tighter leashes—sometimes literally—than ever. Entire industries have cropped up around an absurd level of baby-proofing that vilifies pillows, crib bumpers and unpeeled grapes and promotes things like baby knee pads, “Thudguard” safety helmets and an endless parade of tiny, intricate plastic pieces that prevent every appliance in your house from being properly operated by children, adults or even David Blaine.

The uptick in our collective neurosis has resulted in a number of scientific studies, which have found helicoptered kids to be more anxious, less self-sufficient, less physically active (read: more obese) and more likely to take antidepressants than peers with more relaxed parents.

To be fair, the negative connotation of “helicopter” generally refers to parents who are still micromanaging their elementary and high school-age kids; few would argue that it’s unwise to follow a toddler around the playground. Well, maybe some would. In a review of multiple parenting books that recently appeared in The New Yorker, author Elizabeth Kolbert mentions that tribes in the Peruvian Amazon trust 3-year-olds to use machetes. Meanwhile, I recently confiscated a blueberry that I deemed too firm for my son’s tender esophagus. When they’re soft enough to pass muster, I generally smush until they surrender their solid state.

Those who favor a more laissez-faire mode of child-rearing are part of a growing backlash to both the hypersensitive attachment parenting made famous by Dr. William Sears and the pitiless, results-oriented strategy endorsed by Amy Chua, a k a the dreaded Tiger Mother. By contrast, this new breed could be called the Tigger mothers: exuberantly adventurous and not afraid to have people think they’re at least mildly insane.

TAKE FOR EXAMPLE Lenore Skenazy, an impassioned advocate of “free range” parenting (a phrase she coined in her self-help book, Free Range Kids). She argues that parents should relax, and that children should be encouraged to explore and play on their own—especially since city crime statistics (horrific exceptions like Leiby Kletzky notwithstanding) make it safer than it’s been in decades for kids to roam unchaperoned.

Ms. Skenazy currently offers an eight-week class series for $350. For this fee—although scholarships are available—she will have a latte at a coffee shop while your child plays nearby in Central Park. Of course, if paying for negligence doesn’t sit right with you, I am personally willing to offer you this service for free. In fact, I’m not watching your kid right now. You are welcome. I accept tips.

If you suspect that I’m secretly kind of jealous of Ms. Skenazy and her Zen sisterhood, you’re right. “Free range” sounds so nice and mellow, doesn’t it, like a ’70s key party with an open bar? I probably wouldn’t have to wear a bra. Plus, consider the alternative: if an animal’s not free range, it’s probably caged.

To find out if it was possible to shut off my inner helicopter, I conducted a short series of experiments. Lacking a yard, or even a child who can walk upright, I decided to first test out the range at home, in our 900-square-foot apartment in Prospect Heights which is only dangerous insofar as it hasn’t been renovated since sometime during the Ford administration.

I put my feet up on the coffee table and cracked open a magazine as Sam crawled past me into the foyer. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him pick up a piece of dried leaf that had been tracked in from the sidewalk. He glanced in my direction and, seeing my lack of attention, promptly ate it. It’s fiber, I told myself as I tried to concentrate on a feature story about the monkey from The Hangover.

He disappeared around a corner and I braced myself for disaster: a head bump, the sound of gagging on loose change, maybe a cartoon anvil descending from on high. After a few minutes of suspicious silence, I followed and found the baby chest-deep in a nest of toilet paper, which he was happily shredding into bite-sized pieces. I normally regard our bathroom as a Saw-like deathtrap of bone-crushing porcelain and stray razor blades, but he survived.

Next, I took my son to Prospect Park, where I lay down, closed my eyes and let him lurch off into the Long Meadow in his weird crab-crawl that looks like Gollum from Lord of the Rings crossed with a three-legged Corgi. When I finally looked over to see if the other mothers were judging me, I saw Sam prostrate in the dirt, as if performing sajdah. I worried that he had died of abandonment-induced ennui until I saw his butt moving, the universal sign for life.

I concede that these experiments are tame. I’m not yet willing to abandon all of my nervous parenting ways—although I can see myself branching out down the line. But just like grapes grown on the fire escape of a Lower East Side tenement yield a different standard of wine than those grown in the lush vineyards of Napa Valley, the concept of “free range” has to be modified for the urban setting. Crime may be down, but if I can’t even navigate the weekend subway after living here my whole life, what hope is there for a child? Riding the subway a few stops through Murray Hill armed with a map and an emergency $20 is one thing; roving the five boroughs like Holden Caulfield on a speedball is another. I’m all for fostering independence in my son, but I have to set boundaries. Only time will tell exactly where they land.

Until then, I will watch my pint-sized progeny attempt to tongue kiss a mylar balloon from a safe, if watchful, distance, and I will try my very best to think, simply: Awesome.

Rise of the Tigger Mom: A Hovering Parent Goes Free-Range