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Parenting by Looking Away: Sometimes the Best Help Doesn’t Look like Help

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

I became a parent in the age of “helicopter parenting” – where the parents are overly focused on their children and try to control or manage everything for them, especially to prevent failure or discomfort.  As a parent, it is easy to get sucked into this hovering way of being. There are times I can barely resist jumping in and doing things for them. I initiate conversations between them and their friends when they aren’t getting along,  I encourage caution when they are climbing high in a tree. I pack their lunches and tie their shoes so they are on time for school. Because I want to keep them safe and happy. I want to help them.  

And in the moment it can seem like this helicoptering is help, but is it really?  I know that when I do for someone else, especially someone growing and learning, they miss out on that growing and learning themselves.  How are they going to navigate their own relationships if I am always jumping in? How are they going to learn what risks are ok with someone constantly putting doubts in them? How are they going to be responsible for themselves without trying and maybe even failing? The instant gratification of this kind of helps blurs my ability to see the long term impact.  

So I am working on keeping the big picture in mind as I parent.  One of the tricks I am using is what I call “parenting by looking away.”  My kids are both reasonable risk takers. They calculate and use judgement.  So when they climb trees or get into arguments with their besties, I don’t put myself in the middle, do it for them, or tell them to be careful. Instead,  I deliberately turn around and look away (often literally but figuratively too).  

“Parenting by looking away” isn’t ignoring children or abandoning them.  By taking a moment to look away, I give my kids some space to try on their own. It is a tangible reminder to me to keep the long play in mind.  I want to stop making this about me and let go of my desire to control and overprotect. I want to trust my kids, I want to believe in them, and I want to give them space to learn and grow.  If they do come to me, I will listen to them. I will find other ways to support them instead of doing things for them.  

I think sometimes as mediators, we are like helicopter parents.  We want to help, we want to fix things, and frankly, we want to be in control. But is that way of helping what mediation is all about?  Now, I’m not advocating mediating “by looking away” per se but the underlying philosophy applies in mediation. Parenting by looking away is about not making myself the center of it all.  It’s about not assuming my take on things is the only way to see it. It’s about giving people space. It’s about seeing people’s potential.    

When parties are the center of the process, when we trust the parties decision-making, and when we are optimistic about their capabilities, they take more responsibility. As a mediator, I don’t look away from the parties, but I do let go of trying to fix their situation. I know they have to do it themselves, and that only by doing it themselves, will the fixes be meaningful. Just as my kids need to learn to make their own decisions and relate to their friends, mediation parties need to make their own shifts to a better place.


Janet Mueller

Janet Mueller’s career as a mediator began at the Dayton Mediation Center in 1995 when she joined the Center as an intern. She was hired in 1997 to manage the Police Mediation Project, which she continues to do today. As one of the lead trainers for the Center, she has… MORE >

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