Lately in The Star, there has been discussion whether to be a helicopter parent or a free-range parent. With local and global news at our fingertips luridly describing the worst of mankind, we can easily become paranoid about the safety of children.
I think all parents want their children to learn to be self-sufficient and independent. In trying to protect a child from the real and perceived dangers, helicopter parents may stunt the growth of their children. In contrast, free-range parents gamble that their children can handle relative independence at a young age without suffering bodily harm or succumbing to the lures of destructive enticements.
My wife and I recently visited Shanghai, China, where our daughter, son-in-law, and two teenage granddaughters live. Before moving to Shanghai two and a half years ago, they lived in Orange County, Calif.
Our daughter feels more comfortable being a free-range mother in Shanghai, with 23 million residents, than in Southern California. The girls are taking Mandarin in school and can give directions to taxicab drivers. They understand the subway routes and maneuver alone through the city without complications. Their international school is about 30 minutes away from their apartment, and thus many of their friends do not live close by. Their course work is demanding and the extracurricular program expansive, leaving little room for unproductive time.
China is by no means a democracy, and employing free speech provocatively can land a person in jail. Crime does exist there: a purse or wallet can be snatched in a subway or from a shopping cart in a supermarket. Yet violent crime, the type of crime that helicopter parents worry about, is very low.
China has a murder rate of about one-fifth the rate in the U.S. Gun-related crimes were just 500 in 2011 in all of China.
In Southern California, our older granddaughter went to a magnet school about 22 miles from their home. She couldn’t wait until she turned 16 and could drive herself to school, a thought not in concert with her parents.
As in Shanghai, she had friends in a wide radius because the school drew from all over the county. Besides the dangers of driving on Interstate 5, there was the party scene. The parents might know their children’s friends but not know the friends’ friends. The need to fit in can sometimes lead to perilous situations.
In Shanghai, the drinking age is 18, and authorities are lax in monitoring underage drinking. The drug culture is more limited and the drug enforcement more active.
Perhaps because the ex-pat numbers are small and the ability to get into trouble is less, our granddaughters, thus far, have shown maturity, constructively balancing their lives there.
Next year our older granddaughter will enter college in Memphis. She’ll be well prepared, both academically and socially, and her parents will be 7,500 miles away.
Don Schoening is a retired federal executive and now a substitute teacher in the Olathe School District. He lives in Lenexa.