Why You Should Strive to Be a 'Lifeguard' Parent

It's so much better for everyone than being a helicopter parent.

child jumping

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"Don't be a helicopter parent." This message has been repeated frequently on this website and others in an effort to encourage parents to back off their kids and give them greater space and freedom to explore. But it doesn't actually tell parents how they should act. What kind of parenting style should be adopted in place of the hovering and overprotectiveness of helicoptering? 

One possible answer is, "Be a lifeguard parent." Treat parenting the way you would lifeguarding – sitting apart from the action and keeping an eye on everything that's going on, poised to jump in if needed. A lifeguard remains on the sidelines and is able to differentiate between harmless play, play that's veering toward dangerous, and play that poses an immediate risk.

This helpful analogy comes up in a conversation between Dr. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia who's a well-known advocate for children's risky play, and Richard Monette, editor-in-chief of Active for Life. Letting one's kid engage in risky play does not mean putting them in danger; rather, parents should practice "vigilant care," an approach that Brussoni breaks down into three parts and Monette likens to lifeguarding. These three parts are (1) open attention, (2) focused attention, and (3) active intervention. 

Open Attention

Open attention is the stage parents should be in most of the time, showing a caring interest in what kids are doing, but keeping their physical distance and remaining non-intrusive. Brussoni says that "a sense of trust permeates the experience," and that once parents step back to observe kids at play, "they will be impressed at how capable their kids are."

Focused Attention

Focused attention is when a parent perceives warning signs and becomes more alert. Maybe it's time to check in with the child to see how they're doing. It might be a good opportunity to help the child think through their actions, rather than directing them. Brussoni uses the example of a tree branch that may look too thin to a parent's eye, but that a child hasn't yet analyzed critically. Ask the child, "What do you think about that branch?" instead of yelling, "Don't go on that branch!" Most of the time, play goes back to being safe and the parent can return to open attention.

Seventeen Seconds

One interesting piece of advice that Brussoni gives is to count to 17 before intervening in a situation that's getting riskier. If 17 seems like an odd choice, she says it's a number devised by a headmistress in a British school, who found it to be the right fit for determining whether a situation is going to improve or get worse. It gives a parent enough time to let a situation play itself out and for a children to show the parent what they're capable of.

Active Intervention

Active intervention is when a parent needs to step in to reduce immediate risk. A child might not realize they're close to the edge of a drop-off or a busy road or deep water, so the parent has to ensure their safety. Apart from emergencies, avoid controlling messages and always strive to give the power to children to do their own risk management.

Brussoni says the vast majority of a parent's time should be spent in open attention. Days could pass without ever entering focused attention. Active intervention should be exceedingly rare. 

It's crucial to avoid telling kids to be careful all the time. This sends a message that the child can't do things without parental assistance. They hear, "I am not capable. I cannot decide for myself how I'm going to do this activity. I need an adult to tell me what to do." This is a harmful message to internalize and it can damage a child's burgeoning self-confidence. It also feeds irrational fear of one's surroundings.

Conclusion

Allowing kids to engage in risky play is by no means an excuse for parents to cease vigilance; instead, they need to adjust the kind of vigilance they use and watch from afar, just as a lifeguard does. It's helpful to think of it literally, as well – "guarding one's child for life" by keeping an eye on them, but not doing life for them. 

No one said parenting was easy, but it can be less overwhelming if you relinquish some control, teach your kids to do things independently, and trust them to self-regulate. Everyone comes out happier in the end.