Essay and photographs by Emily Nichols
As our hiking shoes tromped through the auburn sands in Utah’s Arches National Park, I pondered how it was possible that both my girls were getting so big. Their still-tiny footprints were not an indicator of the expansive capacity of my daughters, Ida Mae, four and a half, and Hazel, who just turned two.
I watched as they made their way excitedly up the sandy trail to “The Windows” and noted how the sight of prickly cacti and flashes of tiny lizards produced excited laughter and wonder in them. As we neared boulders with giant slickrock faces looming above, I noticed my husband becoming more and more vigilant over our girls’ every move. His cautiousness and unease became progressively palpable as we began to ascend. “Let’s climb up!” shouted Ida, followed by “Up! Up!” from her little sister. I was so thrilled to see the excitement and wonder in their eyes.
There were so many new things to experience on our trip to the desert, feeling the power of these massive rocks was almost overwhelming. “Easy girls. Be careful. Let us help,” was uttered more than once during our hikes in Arches. And as we held hands, carefully spotted, and cautiously gave direction, I started to pay attention to my “parenting style.”
Now, I don’t think there’s such a thing as one single style—we all adapt to our own children and situations. But I do think that most parents fall strongly in one direction more than another. There are terms like “helicopter mom,” “free-range dad,” authoritative, indulgent, permissive, and many more to choose from. These terms seem rigid in their descriptions, labeling many of the parenting techniques in a negative way.
To me, these terms aren’t inspiring or encouraging for parents who want to learn more about their personal parenting style.
Generally speaking, I can’t pigeonhole myself into one of these labels. Rather, I aspire to be a forward-thinking, positive parent who builds an incredible relationship with my children. As I look deeper, I find I fit into several categories. When it comes to the physical stuff like bumps, bruises, and skinned knees, I take more of a backseat. And while I’m certainly not going to put my children in serious danger, I do like them to have experiences and take calculated chances. Sometimes that comes along with “owies.”
During our trip to the desert, I found myself letting the girls explore and take risks more comfortably than my husband. I felt his concern for their safety seemed a bit like a “helicopter” parenting move, hovering over them as we scaled rocky boulders, his words cautioning them of risk and peril. I am sure my husband felt that I wasn’t being cautious enough, that my “free-range” style would certainly result in skinned knees and bruised elbows. I think this is where he and I work really well together, complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
When it comes to the emotional side of my girls’ well-being, I play, once again, the opposite card of my husband. But this time, I am the helicopter. I come to the rescue when I feel that their sweet souls are being threatened by the harshness of others. The mama bear appears when one of my girls is hurting from unkind words or treatment. My husband probably sees me as overbearing when it comes to my girls’ hearts. And he balances out my helicopter style by being more practical and less impulsive during heated emotional events.
Parenting has certainly been, and will continue to be, the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life. We spend our days molding our children’s minds, bodies, and hearts in the direction to which we aspire. And through each warning and positive praise, I find myself critiquing my parenting technique and style, hopefully bettering it and improving our family bond.
As we packed up our camp and headed north, filled with new sights and experiences, I felt us recharge as a family, our balance restored through newfound capabilities and trust. Yes, our girls had a few bumps and bruises after our time exploring in the desert, but those will fade in time. I’m proud to know they’ll cherish the experience of discovery, and they’ll grow from the independence allowed them.