Thanks for Not Being a Helicopter Parent

Published on August 14th, 2016

by Cindy Wallach, SpinSheet
My 12 year old gave me a Mother’s Day card this year with the following note: “Dear Mom, Thank you for not being a helicopter parent. Love, Zach”

When my oldest was about five, he decided that bouncing on the netting of our catamaran like a kangaroo on Pixie Stix was a good way to spend a fair weather sail. Smile glued to his sweet face, it took all my inner mama Zen not to say, “Child, get back off that netting while we’re underway and sit perfectly still in the cockpit so that I can breathe easy and keep you safe.” But then I remembered where he got it from.

I am sure there were many moments in my life where my parents thought the same of me. Watching me sail way out on Lake Michigan all by myself on a Sunfish, not really sure how to tack back but trusting I’d figure it out. Declaring we were casting off to go cruising, and oh yeah, while we’re in Cuba for two months, you won’t have any way to get a hold of us. Announcing we were expecting a baby, and staying living aboard our boat.

My kids need to feel that freedom, too. They need to learn how to use every muscle to navigate around the boat underway. They need to find their own balance without my worried hands guiding them. They need to face-plant and knee-skid a few times to learn how to predict the motion of the sea. The kids may not remember this sail or this summer, but their bodies and hearts are memorizing the feeling of sailing and the sea, and the feeling of freedom.

I remember looking at my firstborn out on the bow of our St. Francis 44 and thinking, he needs to do this now in play form so he can hold his own down the road, so he can become “that guy.” You know, that guy who’s been around boats his whole life and will read the wind and the waves as easily as he breathes. That guy who walks on the deck of a boat in 20 knots without a trip in his step. The guy I looked at with envy when I was in my 20s and started sailing seriously, struggling to learn the ropes.

One summer not long ago we were tucked into a perfect little anchorage off the Wye River with a gaggle of boat kids. It was a group of eight- to 10-year olds, all ready to charge off and explore the anchorage. I had my second born as a toddler back on the boat to look after. Some of the adults had repairs to do or cocktails to make. So we handed over the dinghies and said, “Go.”

The kiddos hopped from kayak to rowing dinghy to outboard powered RIB easily and swiftly as land kids might hop off the swings and head over to their bikes. They fished and crabbed and mucked around the shoreline full of adventure and imagination and mischief. We watched from the mother ships, wondering what those monkey kids were saying and planning and yet just as happy not to know. It’s their time, their world, their adventure to have on their own terms.

There are so many books and articles and TED talks preaching the need for kids to have unstructured outside time, unfettered play, contact with nature, and what better place than sailing on the Chesapeake? I am grateful each and every day that we don’t have to plan or carve out that goal; it’s just our everyday life.

In our family, the problem is convincing the kids to come inside or convincing them to eat at the table instead of on the dock or up in the stack pack. We have to plan “inside time” to get chores finished up. I watch them go and go, and without toys or planned activities they seize the planet and their imagination and grow stronger for it. I love that we have the freedom outdoors; yet we have the safety of a community of other sailors planted around us.

It was a funny sentiment in a Mother’s Day card. At first I laughed it off, thinking it was his tween-age way of asking for more autonomy. Then I realized that, in this long term mountain climb we call parenting, maybe he appreciates what my husband and I have been trying very hard to do these past 12 years. Trying to keep in mind that our job is not to shelter them and tell them what to do.

We need to let them find their way and be there when they need us. Let them know the rules, let them know they are loved, and hope they soak in all the beauty in this crazy life afloat. It takes every bit of strength we have to stand back and let them go forth and be free, but we know how vital it is, because it’s the life we chose.
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About the Author: Annapolis cruiser Cindy Wallach lives aboard a St. Francis 44 catamaran on Back Creek with her husband and two children, who have lived there all their lives.

SpinSheet is an Annapolis-based magazine that’s full of information and celebrates the people, places, boats, personalities, and events that make the Chesapeake one of the world’s premier sailing grounds.

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