08/05/2013 09:03 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Can There Be Such a Thing As Too Much Parenting?

Can there be such a thing as too much parenting? If you had asked me this question 16 years ago, I would have answered, "Of course not." From the time their children are born, good parents are hard-wired to monitor every move, making sure Junior doesn't roll off the changing table, choke on a piece of hot dog or stick a knife in an electrical socket.

Once you start, it is very hard to stop this kind of 'good parenting.' After all, you are much smarter than your children, your judgment is much, much better and you've been around the block enough times to know that there is danger lurking absolutely everywhere. But, one day, you wake up and realize that what you thought was good parenting was actually helicopter parenting, and as your rotors spin faster and faster, your kids are just pulling further and further away.

I have three boys, and suspect I am genetically hardwired to helicopter parent. I'll never forget the conversation I had with my mother, just after I graduated from college, when she explained that the reason she still wanted to make decisions for me was because she had spent so many years as my parent doing just that -- and it had always been fine. Encouraged, even. Now, I think about my mother's helicopter parenting and am reminded of that famous quote from Mark Twain: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." Because now, of course, I see the way I (attempt to) parent my sons and know exactly what my mother meant.

This month, Real Simple publishes its yearly Family issue, and as I read "Help for the Hovering Mom," I was both nodding my head and wanting to bury it in my hands. Like Jennifer Breheny Wallace, I spent years believing that helicopter parenting was good parenting. Little did I know that it can undermine a child's self-confidence and increase his stress level. Maybe my son is 6 and learning to tie his shoes, or 14 and doing biology homework, or 17 and getting ready for the prom. But I have learned -- and it has taken me years -- that instead of just giving my help, I need to ask my kids if they want it. And to step back when they say no.

My oldest son is now 18 and, as I write this, on a three-week European trip with six of his friends. The boys planned the entire thing on their own, from dates to itinerary to cell phone plans. Last Saturday, before driving him to the airport, I asked my son if he wanted me to look at what he packed, just to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. No, he said. So I have no idea what he took in that giant backpack, besides the very long novel Cloud Atlas, which I could identify by its shape at the top of the bag. It is a book that he lost interest in at home, so who knows why he thinks he is going to finish it in Europe. But I held my tongue and am hoping for the best. Which, at the end of the day, is one of the best things any good parent can do.