07/23/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

In Defense of Helicopter Parenting

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I never set out to become a poster girl for helicopter parenting. In fact, I despise the term, and would much rather be called a protective parent. Somewhere along the line, though, cautious parents like me became misunderstood, even maligned, in the media.

Since "free range" has become the flavor of the decade, those of us who aren't as, say, relaxed in terms of parenting are viewed with disdain, even contempt. It's somehow become admirable to let your kids roam barefoot like they're in the middle of a field at Woodstock instead of in the middle of a city sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts and smatterings of broken glass. It's somehow become hip to be the aloof parent, texting and sipping a mocha-something while actively ignoring your child in the playground -- or worse still, leaving said child at said playground for hours on end because you have to work and have no childcare. If a kid wails on the monkey bars, does anybody hear?

A recent New York Times piece waxed lyrical about the serendipity of letting kids taste dirt, but all I read was nostalgia for a time that I recall somewhat differently. Yes, in many ways my childhood was freer than that of my son. Growing up in small-town Ontario, my cousin and I would set off exploring for hours at a time. Sometimes we ended up knee-deep in a muddy creek. Other times we were berated or simply creeped out by randoms. Once, we had to walk our bikes home after some prankster decided to twist our seats around while we were inside a public washroom.

Nothing awful or remotely tragic ever happened to us.

We never expected it would. Back then we didn't think seat belts were a big deal until one of us (guess who?) nearly fell out of a moving car when the door suddenly flew open. And speaking of cars... Leaving a preschooler unattended in one -- even if I intend full well to be back within a few minutes -- is simply a no-go. Bad things happen every day to well-meaning people who leave children and pets in their vehicles. Frankly there are some risks I'm unwilling to take for the sake of convenience.

No, I don't have my 5-year-old on a GPS -- or a leash for that matter -- yet I'm also keenly aware that he isn't streetwise. Not even close. So I will keep on feeding him only as many bites of independence as he can stomach at a given time. The world isn't full of wackos. But it's not an episode of The Wonder Years, either.

The fact that my son has Asperger's does mean I'm more vigilant and hands-on than most parents. I have to be. Like many kids on the autism spectrum, he simply doesn't get social nuances. The wake-up call came one day in the park when, lagging several feet behind, I caught up in time to see him take the hand of the 'nice woman' he had just met...

Sadly, stranger danger isn't an urban myth or a delusion dreamed up by paranoiacs like me. In my neighbourhood (among the safest in the city -- in which kids do play in the street, incidentally), on more than one occasion police have been called to the local playground over a man behaving suspiciously. Last year police were also called after a man was found, having wandered into an unlocked elementary school, in the boys' washroom.

When I was out shopping months ago, I came upon a kid, not much older than my son, crying his eyes out at the back of the store. I glanced around the nearby aisles. No one. Assuming he was lost, I tried to talk to him, but the boy was crying so hard I couldn't get any sense out of him. By this time a sales associate and another concerned shopper had approached the boy. I headed to the front of the store to alert staff, when a woman in line to pay casually piped up to say the boy was hers. OK, I said, backing off. In that split second, I reassessed what I had seen, and duly rewrote the narrative. Maybe a coveted toy had been refused... Though I was relieved that the boy was accounted for, the incident left me feeling uneasy and unsure of my own footing as a parent. Was I being overly judgmental, jumping to conclusions? Was the mom careless or simply laidback in her approach?

When it comes to raising children, this is what I have learned so far: there is no black and white, only swathes of grey. Would I still be a helicopter parent if my child was typical? Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that a little paranoia goes a long way, and for now at least this mama plans to err on the side of caution every time.