I used to teach English at a distinguished college preparatory high school in Los Angeles. Occasionally, the faculty would bemoan the “helicopter parent” after an exhausting and ghastly encounter. For example, a father told me his son, a sophomore in my composition class, could not complete the homework because the son was sad his pet goldfish died. Another mother drove her son’s homework to school after she completed it for him. At my classroom door, in front of his class, she explained he was too excited to do his homework last night after he found out he made the freshman football team.
Even helicopter parents understand that if they always tie their child’s shoe, the child will never learn to tie a shoe. But parenting is a complicated paradox: as a parent, my job is to make myself obsolete. The whole business of parenting is weaning. The process of weaning and independence is easy to see with young children, when desire precedes ability, and they want to pour the milk or pick out their own clothes. After many days and years of scaffolding independence the hope is my children will get an education and job, be able manage money, make decisions to safeguard their health, find people that make them happy, and join communities.
That’s how the whole plan is supposed to proceed, but the plan requires revision when a chronic disease enters the scenario. Our four year old has type 1 diabetes. Now our job is to aim for all the aforementioned things, but also to daily administer a drug, insulin, which preserves his life, but could take it. In a few years, we’ll have to teach him how to deliver this same drug. We have to teach him how to wear medical equipment (Animas pump and Dexcom) on his body 24 hours a day and how to take care of this equipment. We’ll have to teach him how to heal and advocate for himself when he encounters unkind or ignorant people.
School is starting, so a parade of parents are meeting with educators and administrators about 504 plans, and educating staff on caring for a student with T1D. In her article, “What It’s Really Like To Raise A Child With Diabetes” on The Huffington Post, Lisa Gastaldo explains some of the fears and realities of diabetes care from a parent’s perspective, as well as her history of working well with schools and doctors. I think it’s a great read to pass along to teachers and family members who may not recognize the trials of living with diabetes.
Even people who are in the diabetes community debate when and what a parent’s role in T1D care should be. As CGM in the Cloud and Nightscout emerged and engaged in important debate with Dexcom over moving to an FDA approved platform that enabled sharing of CGM data, people in the diabetes care industry predicted that the helicopter parents of T1D children would be distracted and consumed by the data. We’ve had Dexcom share since June, and have found the opposite to be true. Rather than wondering what our son’s blood glucose is, and texting or calling to find out, we look at the number and move on. We’ve been able to leave our son with family members for the first time since diagnosis. Just this week, both of Henry’s preschool teachers downloaded the app on their phones and marveled at how this continuos stream of information would make monitoring and care easier in the classroom.
My job is primarily to be a parent, but as I watch my four year old son struggle to put on a pair of pants while holding an insulin pump, I realize my other more arduous job is to be a parent to a person with type 1 diabetes. How long do I watch him try to untangle the tubing from his pants before I step in? To stall, I play a trick on myself and say this is like any other challenge every other kid faces, right? I tell myself only the scenario is different, but then Henry looks at me in frustration. He asks for help, and I can see on his face that he knows this struggle is different, more intricate and undue. There’s no need to say anything in this moment that requires action. Instead, we sit down on the floor, where he can place his pump, and find a new way to put on pants.