He was 22 years old when his mother gave him up to the police.
It was 1988, the last spasm of apartheid, and the military police had arrived at his mother’s flat in Durban to track down the military service dodger. But he was living elsewhere in Durban on the Berea, hoping that his mother would deny all knowledge of his existence, or at least his whereabouts.
Instead, she meekly handed over the information and he was located, formally charged and required to attend a tribunal in Pretoria several weeks later. “I wasn’t really surprised,” he said. “She was essentially a good person but fearful and timid, and I never felt she would protect me. When we first arrived in Durban, she dropped my brother at the gate of his new school and told him to approach the headmaster to sort out everything. That was for grade 1.”
Meanwhile, according to Google the ‘problem’ currently appears to be the other way round. In families, fictional and real, and in 1 600 000 internet hits (compared to 55 000 for the term ‘underprotective parent’), overprotectiveness, sometimes referred to as helicopter parenting, is the hot topic.
Modern society is a culture of information. But sometimes we have so much information about every new disaster, crime and moment of misery that it also means we live in a culture of fear. High levels of parental protectiveness seem necessary given the many dangers reported in our newspapers and community crime-watch emails. We are drowning in bad news.
Life can also seem more pressurised, jobs more scarce, the future more uncertain (let’s pretend it’s not 1914 or 1939 or any year of apartheid), so fiercely protecting your child seems to be a basic requirement of effective parenting.
But overstepping one’s parental role, not allowing children to learn from mistakes or fight some battles on their own, can prevent children from developing resilience and learning to manage difficulties.
Underprotective or indifferent parents are a different sort of animal completely. These parents aren’t creating a safe environment in which to allow their child to learn independence, but throwing them to the wolves. This happens when parents were themselves raised by neglectful or abusive parents, or where community or family structures have broken down.
So how to find balance? A parent should be more guide than bodyguard. When your toddler staggers past a sharp-edged table, walk quietly behind him at the ready rather than call out the danger and whisk him aside. Let your 5-year old daughter grapple with her shoelaces rather than always intervene. Advocate how your 10-year old can deal with her friendship dispute rather than automatically phone the friend’s parents. Allow your teenager to fight smaller battles with authority figures on her own – you don’t want to communicate that you have no trust in her strength of character.
What you want to raise is a free range child, not a battery chicken unfit for the normal rigours of
everyday life. The term ‘free-range kid’ was coined by an American writer, Lenore Skenazy. She says a free range child ‘’gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help. For instance, in the suburbs, many school PTAs have figured out a new way to raise money (God bless ‘em): They auction off the prime drop-off spot right in front of the school — the shortest distance between car and door. But at the mall, or movie theater or dentist’s office, that would be considered the handicapped parking spot — the one you need if you are really disabled.”