Joco Opinion

In parenting, hanging back is harder than taking control

A swallowtail that needed a bit of help.
A swallowtail that needed a bit of help. Maria Espinoza.

By the time my mom found the big butterfly at her house a few weeks back, it looked like the poor thing’s spring flight had come to a horrible end.

It was barely alive and ants were crawling all over it. Mom wiped the ants off the yellow and black wings and laid the butterfly on a chair in the patio.

The whole thing sounded almost pointless when she told me about it. I looked up the butterfly — a Western tiger swallowtail, it turns out — and the few sites that took on the morbid question of how long these fleeting lives usually last said this one would have been lucky to see out a month.

But darned if Mom’s effort didn’t pay off.

A few days later, the swallowtail started moving its wings again and flew away to live out whatever extra time my mom had stolen for it.

Mom sounded thrilled to have saved the butterfly, and I was happy to hear how the story ended.

That’s the problem with getting little creatures out of fixes, though. It feels so good that it’s hard to see when everyone would be better off if you’d just back away and let the them find out what they can do for themselves.

There might be a good guideline in the lesson of the swallowtail: Go ahead and swoop in when it’s a crash and burn situation, and definitely when they’re being eaten alive. Otherwise maybe hang back.

As a dad, I know this is easier said than done. Helicopter parenting gets a bad rap for real good reasons, but I do have to admit that parenting is one of those rare cases where sitting still takes a lot more effort than leaping in.

I’m feeling it with my own two sons, especially as the older one gets started on his teenage years.

My wife and I have always been proud of how little coddling the boys have needed, how comfortable they were as little kids with responsibilities like walking to the doughnut shop to get the family’s breakfast and planning out their own school projects.

But lately I realize that I’m still holding the big one’s hand more than I thought — figuratively, of course, because there’s no way he’d actually hold Dad’s hand these days. But it’s still starting to look ridiculous.

Even though it’s only on small things anymore, they’re the kind of things that are going to make for a rough life if he doesn’t get his own good grip on them.

Like waking up.

The question of what would happen if my wife or I didn’t shout for the boy to get out of bed for school is purely theoretical. The tension of watching the clock tick closer and closer to bus arrival time is always too much for us, and we break and holler.

For someone who takes school as seriously as he does, though, I bet just one snooze through an unexcused absence would be enough motivation for him to start taking charge of his day as soon as the alarm goes off.

But like I said, hanging back is harder than taking control.

It’s going to help to remember that even once my wife and I cut back on swooping in to save him from little scrapes, the world offers lots of other chances to play the hero.

Last year about this time, not long after the season’s new goslings hatched, two Canada geese and their chick tried to hurry off the path in front of me at my neighborhood park. The gosling did the best it could, but it was dragging a long tangle of fishing line that had gotten twisted around its tiny legs.

Moving slowly and cooing reassurance, I managed to get past the big geese, scoop up their chirping fluffball and free it from the fishing line.

Last week six new goslings hatched at the park. They haven’t given me an excuse to pick them up. I suppose it will be a better season for them if they never do.

But I’m standing by if they get tripped up so bad that they might get eaten alive. My own little ones are going to be on their own more, and I’m looking for work.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at And follow him on Twitter at @respinozakc.