How to Stop Being Helicopter Parents
Why Heliparenting is Harmful (and Not Just to Your Kids)
Moms and dads who try to anticipate every single threat to a child’s safety and happiness— sharp edges, viral superstrains, evil math teachers—are like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia: They beat back one enemy, and along comes an army of others. The price of this eternal vigilance? For one, helicopter parents are more likely to feel unhappy. According to one study conducted by the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 23 percent of preschool moms who practiced “intensive parenting” had symptoms of depression. No wonder, says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry, ($12, amazon.com): “Our society tells us that a good parent is constantly ‘on’—going to every game, whipping out flash cards. Also, we make anxiety contagious. When something bad happens to any kid anywhere, we assume that every single child is in danger.”
What’s more, the extreme measures that parents take to protect kids may actually leave them more vulnerable, according to child psychologist Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., the author of the upcoming book The Opposite of Worry ($13, amazon.com). “A child needs to learn gradually, with your help, what’s safe and unsafe,” he says. “If he doesn’t get that chance, he can take on a challenge that’s too big and get seriously hurt.”
American parents may be particularly inclined to get out the Bubble Wrap. “In many other countries, reasonable risk is considered crucial for a healthy, self-confident child,” says Christine Gross-Loh, the author of Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us ($19, amazon.com). She cites the research of Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, an associate professor in the physical-education department of Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education, in Trondheim, Norway. Sandseter conducted research in Norwegian, Australian, and English playgrounds and found that kids are naturally drawn to risky play because it helps them learn to manage their fears a little at a time. Other research, adds Gross-Loh, indicates that when kids are confined to an overly safe playground, they become bored, create their own risks (like standing on the swings), and end up hurt.
Physical freedom isn’t the only kind a kid requires on the road to adulthood, says Cohen: “Children need to learn to negotiate conflicts on their own. I was of the generation where the mean kids clobbered everybody, and I wish there had been some supervision. But now if two kids are fighting over a toy, an adult jumps in and says, ‘Let’s set a timer.’ ” That might calm the ruckus, but it deprives kids of opportunities to learn social skills.
One Day They Will Fly the Coop
What Happens When Overprotected Kids Leave Home?
Even the most coddled child has to untie the apron strings eventually. (One historical exception: When Douglas MacArthur entered West Point as a cadet, his helicopter mom moved into an apartment near the grounds, reportedly so that she could watch him study through a telescope.) Holly Schiffrin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, thinks that some parents of college students have not gotten the memo. “They call me to discuss grades, or they want my help setting schedules,” she says. “Some even monitor their kids’ diet and exercise habits.” Yet all this loving care does not always result in happier offspring, as Schiffrin discovered when she surveyed 297 students and found that the ones with controlling parents were more anxious and depressed. A separate study of 300 freshmen from Keene State College, in Keene, New Hampshire, found that heliparented students were more likely to feel angry, worried, self-conscious, and vulnerable.
Although it might sound great to have someone swoop in to take care of everything, human beings have an innate need to do things for themselves. “Competence and autonomy have been consistently associated with well-being,” says Schiffrin. “Helicopter parents undermine these ideas. They’re sending young adults the message ‘You’d better let me do it. You’re not capable of solving your own conflicts or managing your own budget.’ ” This could explain why, in a survey from the website OnlineCollege.org, one in five students thought that it would be OK to have their parents contact a prospective employer.
Constant involvement in their personal (and professional) lives might have something to do with nonstop communication. Call it a technological umbilical cord: According to the OnlineCollege.org survey, 41 percent of students text, e-mail, or call their parents daily. “When I was in college, there was one pay phone for the entire floor. I talked to my parents once a week,” says Schiffrin. “If I had a dispute with my roommate, I had to handle it. Now kids can e-mail their papers to their parents.”
And why not, if Mom and Dad are helping to pay for the class? College is expensive, says Schiffrin, and parents may want to make sure that they get a return on their investment. “There’s this academic terror that parents have for their kids,” says child psychologist Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “and the recession adds to it.” Micromanagement is a classic way of coping with larger anxieties, he says: “When things feel out of control, we try to exert control in other ways.” But doing everything under the sun to ensure that your child gets an A in astronomy isn’t going to make you or him feel more secure. And that you can take to the bank.
Where Did the Term “Helicopter Parenting” Come From?
It popped up as early as 1969, in the book Between Parent and Teenager. The author, psychologist Haim G. Ginott, quoted his intensely (s)mothered teen patient: “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter and I’m fed up with her noise and hot air.… I’m entitled to sneeze without explanation.” The term became part of the vernacular after former school principal Jim Fay and psychiatrist Foster W. Cline deployed it in their 1990 book, Parenting With Love and Logic, ($19, amazon.com). Now it’s only picking up speed. In 2010 a Google search for “helicopter parenting” brought up 117,000 hits. In 2013 there are already almost 20 million.
Who Are You Calling a Helicopter Mom?
You know your kid, and maybe she does need you to triple-check her homework every night. But more help isn’t always better. Here are eight signs that you may need to step back.
1. You never sit down or talk to another adult on the playground—too much jungle-gym spotting to do! Also, your child never plays in the yard alone.
2. Your child needs you to negotiate everything, from sandbox skirmishes to sleepover drama.
3. You prefer to guide her activities rather than let her indulge in free play.
4. You micromanage playdates, fretting over the other parents’ rules and sending snacks.
5. Your child needs you to talk her through disagreements with friends or roommates before she addresses them.
6. It’s painful for you to watch your kid get frustrated; you rush in to help.
7. Choose her college for her? Of course.
8. You think it’s fine to call her college professors to argue a deadline or get progress reports.