Apodaca: Drone parents swoop onto scene

Last week I wrote in defense of helicopter parents. Perhaps I needn’t have bothered, because if the running commentary in parenting magazines, blogs and other media devoted to subjects surrounding the raising of children is to be believed, helicoptering is yesterday’s news.

There’s a new flying object in town. Make way for the drone parent.

The philosophy of drone parenting centers around the idea that parents should give their kids a greater degree of independence by allowing them to engage in activities while parents watch from afar.

Rather than try to stage manage every move and solve every problem for their children, drone parents only swoop in when help is truly needed. In this way, proponents of this concept argue, drone parenting is the opposite of helicoptering, and far superior in that it allows kids to develop coping skills and learn from their mistakes.

Not so fast, some skeptics argue. While the drone parenting concept might sound appealing in theory, there’s nothing about it that automatically guarantees a mom or dad won’t overreact to issues concerning their children. They might hold themselves at a distance instead of hovering too close, but drone parents could easily, with just the tiniest bit of provocation, dive in with all the drama and obsessiveness we associate with a helicopter parent.

When it comes down to it, many contend, drone parents are just a new version of helicopter parents. They might hover remotely, but they still hover. They are helicopter parents 2.0.

But there’s a twist to drone parenting that is also eliciting comments like “creepy,” “scary,” “embarrassing” and “crazy.” It has to do with the literal use of drones — that is, unmanned aerial vehicles, the flying robots we’ve come to know primarily for their terrorist-tracking use by the military.

A couple of months ago a Tennessee dad unwittingly set off a national debate when he decided to grant his 8-year-old daughter’s request to walk by herself to school one day. The father, a techy-type guy, used a drone to follow her so that he could monitor her solo walk through a remote video feed.

Clearly well-meaning but unaccustomed to being in the media spotlight, he made the unfortunate remark regarding his daughter that, “I let her know that Dad is always watching.”

As the story spread to news outlets around the country, sparking controversy, the dad seemed genuinely flummoxed by all the attention, saying he only meant it as a one-time thing and he never meant to provoke a debate over parenting methods.

It might help him get over the unwanted publicity to know that the debate was already set in motion before he even agreed to be interviewed. Drone parenting — the kind that involves actual drones — is now a real option being offered to modern parents by some companies that see a potentially lucrative marketing opportunity. There’s nothing quite so cynical as attempts to profit from the fears of earnest parents.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the vast majority of new parents today are tech-savvy millennials, who are viewed as far more comfortable with what older generations likely consider too-intrusive or at least unnecessary uses of technology.

At the big annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, for instance, there were reports about lots of high-tech do-dads being introduced for parents. They included wearable tracking devices — otherwise known as digital leashes — that allow parents to keep a fix on their children’s whereabouts. There were also many versions of clothing and other items equipped with computer chips that are meant to be used to wirelessly monitor babies’ vital signs and movements.

As for drones, the number of companies displaying their UAV technology at the CES increased from four last year to 15 at this year’s show, enough to qualify for their own section. The Consumer Electronics Assn. estimates that consumer spending on drones, while still tiny compared to commercial and military applications, will grow from $69 million in 2014 to $103 million this year, and will reach the billion-dollar market level within five years. And this is before the Federal Aviation Administration has even decided on its rules for drone use.

Meanwhile, online retailer Amazon, which made headlines with its announced plans to make deliveries by drone, now has a Drone Store, which sells UAVs priced from less than $100 to upward of thousands of dollars. During the last holiday shopping season predictions of a “Drone Christmas” began surfacing; expect the number of such forecasts to proliferate this year. And big hopes are being raised that the market will explode once the hot high-definition photography company GoPro unveils its line of consumer drones next year.

Where all of this is leading and how it will affect families remains unclear. It does seem likely that at least some kids will wake up Christmas morning to find drones under the tree, while their moms and dads will increasingly view such high-tech monitoring devices as useful parenting tools.

It’s possible that drone parenting — both metaphorical and literal — will become accepted practice. A few decades from now we might fondly reminisce about the early 20th century when we worried about such prosaic developments. By then we’ll have moved on to androids.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.