Helicopter Parenting vs. Lighthouse Parenting: Lessons from Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo is one of my favorite movies to watch.  The story tells of a fretful, overprotective, Clownfish father named Marlin, who loses his son Nemo to a scuba diver.  In his quest to save his son, he meets a Blue Tang fish named Dory, who suffers from short term memory loss.  The two of them go to great lengths to find and rescue Nemo and return to their home in the reef.  Dory, with her positive and optimistic spirit,  always seeing the glass as half full, teaches the rather pessimistic Clownfish a lesson in parenting.  Marlin tells Dory that he promised that he would never let anything happen to Nemo.  Dory replies, “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Nemo.”
There is great wisdom from that little blue fish.

Allowing Risks

As I reflect on Dory’s parenting advice to Marlin, I am challenged as I raise my own children.   Too often, we as parents want to shelter our children and prevent anything bad ever happening to them, and place them in a protective “bubble”.  In the words of Dr. Mike Sligh, “We prepare the road for the child instead of the child for the road.”  However, it is through the trial and error of risks that our children are able to grow and mature.  According to Maggie Dent, “Unless we allow children to stretch themselves and potentially have an accident, we’re not letting them develop competence in judging risk.”

Some of the risks that we allow our children to experience seem natural:

  1. learning to walk
  2. learning to ride a bike
  3. learning to jump into a pool and swim
  4. climbing monkey bars
  5. participating on a sports team

Generally, these risks don’t seem very scary.   In fact they seem necessary in the development of children.  Through these situations your child learns how cause and effect works.  Negative consequences become great teaching opportunities.

Yet, the same holds true as your child faces bigger risks.  These risks seem more frightening to parents:

  1.  going over to friend’s house to spend the night
  2.  driving the car
  3.  dating
  4.  going off to college

That list could go on and on!!!  There seems to be a little bit more at stake with the second set of risks.  These risks are the ones in which we want to position our child in the proverbial  “bubble”, and make all the the decisions for them.  But as with the first set of risks, they are also necessary in the development of your child.  As parents, we should teach our children how to identify risks.  Teach them that risks can have benefits as well as dangers.  Demonstrate to your children the importance of prayer before you act.

Helicopter Parenting vs. Lighthouse Parenting

Tim Elmore wrote an interesting article for Focus on the Family titled From Helicopter Parent to Lighthouse Parent.In this article, he encourages us to move from over protective, hovering parents to guiding parents.

“A lighthouse stays in one location, and it’s a beacon that has ongoing communication with passing ships. A lighthouse reveals its location; it warns mariners of danger and provides wise guidance — but it won’t chase down the ships. How does the analogy apply to parenting? Here are the differences in a nutshell:”

Helicopter Parents

  1. Hover and control
  2. Follow kids around
  3. Tell them how to behave
  4. Impose rules and regulations

Lighthouse Parents

  1. Check in and communicate
  2. Don’t chase kids down to enforce rules
  3. Let them know where they stand
  4. Offer wisdom (light) and guidance

Our children won’t mature in a healthy way if they aren’t allowed to navigate scary situations and challenging experiences. Kids need to take calculated risks to mature. Unfortunately, American parents often view struggle as a negative thing.  Struggles and discomfort are to be avoided. We’ve recognized the value of self-esteem but forget that it should be strengthened through challenges.

What we fail to see is that when we remove struggles from our children’s lives, we begin to render them helpless. They lose the opportunity to develop resilience, creativity and problem-solving skills — important strengths they’ll need later on.”

“Scripture reminds us to count it joy when we fall into trials, for this kind of testing produces endurance. We’re then encouraged to allow endurance to have its full effect (James 1:2-4). When we continually step in to control our kids’ levels of risk, they don’t learn how to be in control or under control. In fact, all they learn is how to be controlled or how to seek help every step of the way.”

Marlin was surely a helicopter parent in the movie.  He did everything he could to protect Nemo.  Despite all of his hovering, he wasn’t able to keep Nemo free from all danger. However, at the end of the movie he became more of a lighthouse parent.  In one of the last scenes he lets Nemo take  a risk and through that risk Nemo saved Dory’s life.

Sometimes we, like Marlin, are hesitant to allow our children the freedom to take risks.  We are tentative to let our children maneuver their own course, and are just plain scared to entrust our child to a heavenly Father who loves them more than we do.  It is at that time we must realize that our anxiousness is misplaced.  We are not trusting God to work in and through our children.  That is where faith comes into play.  Put your trust in God who is all-knowing.  Put your confidence in a God who is all powerful.  Put your faith in God.  Proverbs 3: 5-6: ”Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.”

As we think about that verse, hopefully we will all become like the lighthouse parent, being ready to warn of danger, shedding necessary light when needed, and being brave enough to allow our children to take a risk.