I’ve known writer Cheo Tyehimba Taylor for double-digit years. We first met in New York at a journalism conference and got along famously and instantly. We stayed in touch while we both moved around — me to Barbados, Toronto, then San Francisco; him back home to NoCal — and eventually reconnected during the dot-com heyday on the left coast. He settled in Oakland, where he still lives today with his wife and daughter.
It’s a real treat to have Cheo write a guest post for me on MMM.
From Latchkey Kids to Helicopter Parents
By Cheo Tyehimba Taylor
When I was in the fifth grade, a girl in my class was raped and murdered on her way home from school. This was during the seventies and it was a huge ordeal for the entire community. For me and my classmates, it signaled a new and horrifying awareness about how fragile our young lives were at the time.
In fact, the death of ten year-old Sarah Smith (not her real name) was shocking because our community had no history of violent acts such as this and because both the perpetrator and the victim didn’t fit into any preconceived stereotypes (both were middle-class and white).
The tragic murder of my friend was a clear harbinger for the violence that was soon to come. The fact is, Gen Xers who came of age in the eighties, esp those who lived in working class communities, witnessed a new normal.
We went from care-free days of walking home after-school (our house keys dangling from chains around our necks) and playing outside until the street lights came on, to witnessing drive-by shootings and gang-related violence on a massive scale. School shootings, child abductions, teachers behaving badly, an onslaught of unfiltered digital distractions, and an assortment of societal ills have drastically changed our outlook. Now grown with children of our own, we are a generation of latch-key kids-turned-helicopter parents.
And many would say rightly so. These days, a year doesn’t pass with another Newtown-like tragedy shocking us (again) and reminding us that our most cherished and valuable citizens, our kids, must be protected 24-7 in America.
This has created a new schism where we as parents shelter our kids from the new cruelties of the world, many of which were not so visibly present when we grew up. Ironically, we often nurture our kids “to a fault” and consequently our “helicoptering” of their every move results in a degree of arrested development. Today, most kids are being dropped off and picked up from school their entire academic career – from kindergarten through high school. What is lost in a society when a generation of kids have never walked themselves to school? This is what public safety is all about.
That simple walk is where they could learn to negotiate with all kinds of people and places in real life in real-time as opposed to a self-selected, downloadable, “imitation of life” via texting and social media. But the trade-off is relative. The digital life gives the illusion of being fully engaged in human interaction while often illuminating how alone we really are.
But don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of social media but also know there is a connection between what we teach our kids about the value of human interaction and how safe we feel within ourselves, and within the world beyond our door steps. As a parent, I struggle to find the right balance between knowing when to hover and when to let the world come crashing in. Threats exists around every corner in unexpected places. We’re all at-risk, but none so much as our children.
Still, I know there’s a way to safe-guard while allowing a child to be a free-roamer. It all starts with letting them do as much as they can, as early as they can, for themselves… and getting off the helicopter, as soon and as appropriate as possible. According to a recent study, raising kids who are resilient go-getters starts with letting them figure some things out for themselves. But for that to happen we need to live in a society where every adult cares (and does something) about public safety.
After the incident at my elementary school, counselors came to visit with not only the kids in my class but all of the children in the school. Teachers, school administrators, city council members, parents, and others took action to create change. A memorial was made at the school and a fund was developed to educate youth and parents about threats to community safety. It was a necessary process of healing. But from that moment on, I viewed my surroundings, my childhood, my life, with a very different gaze.
And now, knowing the evils in the world, I am clear that my role as protector of my 5 year-old daughter goes beyond what I do for her alone. It extends to my community and my ability to advocate for all vulnerable populations. We are all responsible to each other. Parenthood, with or without the helicopter, teaches you these things.
Cheo is an author, journalist, and writer extraordinaire. Reach him at email@example.com.