Simply put, ‘helicopter parenting” describes a parent who takes an overprotective interest in their children and  ‘free-range parenting’ describes raising children more independently and with less parental supervision.  These two diametrically opposed parenting styles both seek the same outcome, which is to arm their children with the ability to cope successfully with life and to survive childhood.  It remains a hot debate as to which approach is more effective.  As dude ranch hosts, we have ample opportunity to see both parenting styles in full bloom in vacationing families.

Is one method more safe and the other more instructive? Is there a middle ground that can be achieved with sufficient effort and persistence? All of these questions are important and nobody can adequately answer them outright because each child, parent, family, and home circumstance is dramatically different and calls for unique approaches.  And we, as passive observers while hosting vacationing families often feel prompted to step up and proxy parent when one approach is taken to an apparent extreme.

So how are we to know if we have stepped into the red zone of over-controlling, parental paranoid helicopter parenting?  Conversely, have we have lapsed into parental disconnect, having abandoned any capacity to directly manage and nurture an independent child’s free ranged child development?  While on a dude ranch vacation, the first hint might come when one of our staff asks the adults-only parent social circle at the post dinner social hour – if they know where any of their kids are.  From the perspective of dude ranch owners with a business model catering to families with children, we see every conceivable style of parenting displayed in the course of serving our visiting guests.  Sometimes the vision is humorous, sometimes it’s a bit scary, and sometimes it’s just plain intriguing.

Properly free-ranged kids have risk exposure matched to capacity

Before we get to the sharing of parenting stories from the ranch, lets give a bit more detail about what it means to free range or to helicopter parent.

A Helicopter Parent: This parenting style has gained a negative reputation over the years since the term ‘helicopter parent’ was first coined. An example of this parenting style is a parent who is invasively involved in their child’s life, to the point that they are controlling, and manipulating all of their child’s learning boundaries.  Helicopter parenting is considered by many as excessively controlling.  It is overly protective of the child.  Some early childhood educators feel that this parenting style does not allow the child to experience healthy and common-place experiences and to learn from the resulting consequences of personal choice. This kind of parenting is regarded by most as hindering natural development.   It removes first hand learning experiences that reinforce the concepts of inescapable consequence for personal behavior and choices.  The effects of helicopter parenting on the child can include: low self-confidence, lack of self-esteem, under-developed coping mechanisms, anxiety, a strong sense of entitlement, and ultimately, underdeveloped life skills.  We most commonly witness this as parent – child teams move through the buffet line and the child asks the parent “Do I like this dish?”  My first response as a server in the line is to suggest the child sample the dish and determine his / her own culinary destiny.  What an original idea!  Youth can actually have a personal opinion separate from a parent!  Meanwhile, the parent continues directing their children through the food buffet with exacting determination as to what will be on each child’s plate.  The child is given no input as to what new culinary experience should be explored or what they would like to explore.

The properly “free ranged” child – free to act, with managed risk

A Free-Range Parent: This parenting style is considered the opposite of Helicopter parenting, and encourages parents to be more removed from children’s choices. They believe that this distance, or the opportunity for their children to be ‘free range’, encourages a sense of independence that enables children to develop stronger coping skills, problem solving, and self-containment skills. However, free range parenting is also recognized as easier said than done. Many who claim to be free range parents display an alarming disregard for their children’s safety and wellbeing; something that strikes a very deep discord with Helicopter parents. Other professed free-range parents may also only be pseudo free-range parents, while they persist in their debilitating helicopter methods.  Our classic free-range parent passing through the same dinner buffet line as the helicopter parent will sheepishly smile acceptingly as their child explains that they only eat white food.   Only white food?   Ok.  Sooner or later there is a price to pay for this level of dysfunctional culinary enabling .

jumping river swimmer wears CHACO shoes

Which is it? Free Ranged or Helicopter Parented?

Since we at the ranch are exposed to a diverse array of parenting styles, we thought it might be instructive,  efficacious and even a little fun to outline what helicopter parenting and free range parenting styles can look like in a ranch setting.

  • A helicopter parent panics when her son returns from the shooting range and is in possession of spent .22 rim-fire shells, which she presumes to be dangerous and inappropriate to possess. The helicopter mom rants uncontrollably at the child, scolding him for his poor choice to pick up the spent shells, wile the child quietly asks mom if she thinks that the spent shells are going to magically jump up off the table and kill something.  Mom doesn’t hear her son’s reply.
  • The Free range mom directs her son to attend the morning excursion to the shooting range. Her son is excited to be able to shoot a real firearm, yet mom is distanced from any desire to be around firearms  and Mom elects to remain back in the lodge to check her facebook likes while her son discovers a new passion in the absence of mom’s view.  Here is a properly free ranged child:  mia-throws-a-hawk  
  • A helicopter parent typically responds by dressing their child in unseasonably warm clothes, hats, scarves, long sleeves, long pants, thick socks, and overdosing on bug repellent to protect the child against the natural insect world. In extreme cases, some parents have even kept their children under cabin arrest for lengthy periods of the vacation out of fear of house flies.
  • A helicopter parent can over react in settings with inherent risks. In more extreme instances, parents have been so focused on the perceived risks of the activity that they are unable to relax while rafting, unable to be positive, and inevitably perpetuate a sense of fear and discomfort amongst their family and other guests that can ruin the experience for the rest of the group.  While I am admittedly NOT a psychiatric professional, my layman’s label of this helicopter parenting style might include a descriptor to include “neurotic…helicopter parent”.
  • A free-range parent might in contrast apply excessive pressure to push the child past reasonable limits. We often get this in the equestrian realm of the ranch with comments like:  “My 7 year old is an advanced horse rider and has been taking lessons for years.  We want her to go on the adventure trail ride because her arena teacher has been having her trot and lope all this year!”  And we ask: “So, did she lope for two hours up a steep single track mountain trail with out-slopping tread and through natural hazards of wild-life and terrain features?   Or…did she lope in circles around the enclosed arena for a half hour with a dead-broke barn horse?”

    But Mommy! I don’t LIKE this life jacket – take it off!

As ranch hosts and wilderness outfitters, Heidi and I sometimes feel we can look at our job through the eyes of a proxy parent. We want to protect our visiting guests (our family) while simultaneously encouraging and enabling their successes in a new an often unfamiliar wilderness setting.  Our remote and rugged terrain is filled with risks, but it is also filled with enriching opportunities.  All of this comes down to a very important underlying fact; we are professional risk managers in a recreational and travel venue. It is our job to ‘guide’ you through an unfamiliar environment in a way that is both safe and rewarding. (Granted, you may still get some mosquito bites, and possibly some helmet hair).

Let’s investigate the atmosphere of a dude ranch in terms of risk management. If you are a helicopter parent, then your mind is seizing up with terror over your perception of the risks associated with a dude ranch vacation. To you, the dangers and the threats seem limitless. Every horse is, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “Dangerous on both ends and crafty in the middle.” The population of dogs, cats, goats, and other critters are a breeding ground for disease and fleas and who knows what else. The thick foliage is home to lurking threats such as bear and SKUNK, thorns, and poison oak. The insect population is nothing short of biological warfare, armed with wings, too many legs, and blood-sucking appendages. The shooting range defies the very merits of civilization and is nothing short of a tragedy waiting to happen. And the white water rafting is an obvious flop! Honestly, who wants to float down a bacteria infested water source on a rubber inflatable death trap, while holding paddles that are nothing more than expertly disguised nose-breakers?

Learning and experiencing new skills defines experiential travel

Yes, there is a consequence if you don’t keep the butt of the stock firmly in the hinge of your shoulder.

How does this compare to the mindset of the super chilled free-range parent? Well, a free range parent might look at the well-groomed landscape of the ranch and think of it as a giant, western style playground for their family. The small animals are friendly, well trained vacation pets for their kids to enjoy during their stay. The beautiful natural world is an opportunity for their kids to experience the grandeur of nature, and to develop an appreciation and respect for it. The horses are well trained and familiar with the uniquely beautiful trails that weave through the ranch. The whitewater is a refreshing activity that gets the whole family out of the cabin and involved in shared adventure! And the shooting range is an environment that teaches about safety first, and provides a unique hands-on learning experience for firearms, archery, and even tomahawk throwing!

Obviously, there is merit in both perspectives. Any parent should try to be conscientious about their child’s safety, particularly when entering a new environment with unfamiliar people and situations. This is why the ranch is an excellent choice for anyone who is concerned with both the quality, and the safety of their family vacation.

“Yep! That’s my boy! He loped his horse all day while on holiday in Mazatlan”

As ranch hosts and wilderness outfitters, Heidi and I sometimes feel we can look at our job through the eyes of a proxy parent. We want to protect our visiting guests (our family) while simultaneously encouraging and enabling their successes in a new an often unfamiliar wilderness setting.  Our remote and rugged terrain is filled with risks, but it is also filled with enriching opportunities.  All of this comes down to a very important underlying fact; ranch owner/operators are professional risk managers in a recreational and travel venue. It is our job to ‘guide’ you through an unfamiliar environment in a way that is both safe and rewarding. (Granted, you may still get some mosquito bites, and possibly some helmet hair).

It is our job as ranchers is to understand the risks in each activity that we offer. We try to protect the essential nature of each activity while bringing risk exposures into acceptable levels.  We know that we cannot eliminate entirely the risk, if we are to preserve the essence of the experience.  For this reason, you can, (or at least, we hope you can) find comfort in knowing that we have already anticipated what can happen. The ranch is a place where I think we can experience the best of both parenting worlds. This can be achieved if you imagine that the ranch staff are your proxy parents (some might call us benevolent dictators). We will be there with you to encourage and offer help and instruction (the free range proxy parent), and we will do our best to not infringe on your opportunity to have firsthand learning experiences.  And like a proxy helicopter parent, we will anticipate the pitfalls that you may encounter, and we will work tirelessly to prevent them.    We want to help you learn how to get up on your horse, and more importantly, we want to help you know how and when it is time to get off that horse.

Doug Cole