10/29/2013 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Pitfalls of Helicopter Parenting

As we pulled up to the playground, I could barely get my son's seatbelt unlocked before he leapt out of the car and took off down the sidewalk toward the playground's entrance. My husband and I grabbed our coffees from the car, and by the time I looked up again, there was a little boy sprawled out on the sidewalk and another boy standing next to him. I quickly realized my 2-year-old son, Eddie, was the one standing, and a slightly older boy, who had suddenly appeared next to my son, was the one who had fallen.

"You okay?" I yelled to the boy.

He didn't say anything. He just got up and ran off to catch up with my son. As the two neared the entrance to the playground, they collided, only this time, it was my son who was on the ground. I ran over.

"Are you all right?" I said, helping him up.


"Yeah," he said.

As my son stood up, the other boy said, "I'm sorry."

"Oh, that's sweet, but you don't have to be sorry," I said. "It was an accident."

My son and the older boy then ran off. When they were out of earshot, my husband leaned over and said, "It wasn't an accident. He hip-checked Eddie. I think he was embarrassed because he fell down."

Once inside the playground, Eddie moved around from the slide to the sea-saw to the plastic boulder wall that led up to the monkey bars. As I watched him climb the wall, I suddenly heard a bam! and then a little whimper. It was the little boy who'd hip-checked my son. He had been standing on a landing at the top of the monkey bars and tried to slide down a nearby pole but had no traction so he went straight down, landing at the bottom of the pole in a heap. I looked around to see if his parents were there, but no one appeared, so I walked over.

"Are you all right?" I said, giving the top of his head a little rub.

"Yeah," he said. I helped him up and asked him his name. He said it was Sammy and that he was almost 4-years-old. He was going to have a birthday soon. He then ran off.

A few minutes later, I heard another bam! as Sammy fell down the same pole. This time a stocky older man with a rubbery face and hands like baseball mitts walked over to the boy, though he didn't help him up.

"Push your sneakers into the pole. It'll slow you down," he said gruffly.

As I stood watching them, I heard a mousy little voice on the monkey bars above us say, "Will you be my friend?"

The boy speaking had glasses and a crew cut. He was talking to a dark-haired boy climbing the monkey bars next to him. The dark-haired boy didn't respond.

Suddenly, there was a voice from the ground, below. "My son is asking you something," said the father of the boy with the glasses.

"Will you be my friend?" the little boy asked again.

The dark-haired boy shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sure."

Satisfied, the father of the boy with the glasses stepped back and folded his arms over his chest.

Oh boy, I thought. Talk about helicopter parenting. It was cringe-inducing to watch. There are a lot of reasons why parents shouldn't intervene. Aside from not allowing our children to develop their own coping skills, we don't always know what's going on with the situation at hand. I have a neighbor who takes students on nature walks, and she said as she was walking down the beach this summer, she spotted some shells that are common in Florida but extremely rare in New Jersey. She wondered how they got here -- until she saw a man up ahead who was dropping the shells into the sand.

"He was a craftsman, and the shells he doesn't use, he drops on the beach. He told me kids love finding them," my neighbor said.

I looked over at the father of the boy with the glasses. He was now chatting with the woman standing next to him, but his arms were still crossed over his chest as he kept a watchful eye on the monkey bars to make sure no one committed any infractions against his son. I suddenly heard a commotion on a landing high in the air at the other end of the monkey bars. Sammy and my son had their arms on each other's shoulders, and I could hear my son saying, "Nooo!" The struggle was taking place right near an opening in the railing, and I was afraid my son was going to fall through.

"Hey!" I yelled, running over. "Hey! Stop it!" I was speaking to Sammy, who was the larger of the two and whom I naturally assumed was the aggressor.

As the two boys released each other, Sammy's father appeared again.

"Sammy was trying to stop your son from going near the opening," he said flatly.

"Really?" I said and looked up at Sammy. "Well, that was really nice, Sammy. Thank you."

I walked up the stairs to the landing and brought my son down.

A few minutes later, Eddie was standing by a plastic wall that had a wheel in it that resembled a small tire. The wheel could be spun from both sides of the wall. As Eddie was spinning it from one side, Sammy walked over and tried to spin it from the other but couldn't because Eddie's hand was on it. The next time I looked up, Sammy had walked over to Eddie's side of the wall, and I saw Sammy's hand on Eddie's. I could hear my son saying, "Stop saying, 'No.' "Eddie then walked away.

I knew that Sammy kid was no good. I was starting to see the playground like a prison yard, where the largest and the meanest rule the roost and the smaller kids just have to suck it up. A small part of me felt like this is a microcosm of life, and I have to let my son fight his own battles, that he's not going to learn how to take care of himself in the big cruel world if I try to protect him. A bigger part of me thought if this kid Sammy goes near my son one more time, I'm going to hip-check him right out of the playground. As we left to go home, Sammy was loitering by the exit, no doubt trying to get one last look at his prey.

The next morning, as Eddie played in his bath, I was curious to know how he felt about being bullied at the playground. I was hoping he hadn't internalized it.

"So, did you like that boy Sammy? The one you met yesterday at the park?" I asked him.

He looked at me blankly.

"You remember Sammy. You were both spinning that wheel, and he told you to stop spinning yours," I said.

Eddie seemed to have a moment of recognition.

"He come over and say, 'No. Don't do this.' I tell him, 'Don't say 'No.'"

"Yeah, that's him," I said. "He told you not to turn that wheel."

Eddie paused for a moment and then said, "He a good kid. We have fun."

And with that, he started flying his dinosaur around the bathtub, making the sound of a motor with his lips.