Helicopter parenting: when helping isn't helpful

Answer these questions honestly:

• Have you ever intervened with a teacher for your child’s grade?

• Have you run forgotten lunches or homework to school for your child?

• Do you take an active role in choosing your child’s activities—or friends?

• Do you talk to, or text, your college-age child every day?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be a helicopter parent.

On the other hand, you may just be a good parent.

That’s really the crux of the problem: when does helping stop being helpful?

Educators, coaches, and others who work with children and young adults all say that they are seeing more parents who are heavily—and often overly—involved in the lives of their children. There isn’t really any good data on this, and the term “helicopter parent” is more of a media term than anything else. We’ve all heard the stories of the parents who write their children’s college essays, who do their laundry at college, who complain to teachers the moment their child gets a B. We’ve seen the elementary school projects that clearly require the use of an Exacto knife, and heard the parents yelling at the coach from the sidelines of soccer games.

These are the extremes, the stories that parents can easily distance themselves from (nobody, after all, wants to be called a helicopter parent). But whether they are doing their child’s homework or not, there is a general trend that parents are more involved than they used to be.

Nobody knows exactly why this is happening, but there are plenty of theories. For some parents, the motivation is about ensuring their child’s success. College admission has become much more competitive, leading many parents to believe that they have to start resume-building as early as preschool.

For other parents, it’s about ensuring their child’s safety and well-being. Whether it’s the effects of 9/11, or just a general cultural shift (or both), parents are far more concerned with safety than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Parents want as close to constant contact as possible. And technology—from cell phones to email to Facebook and Skype—has made constant contact possible in ways we couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago.

It’s true that some kids do need more hovering than others. Those with significant academic difficulties, or those who really struggle socially need more help and support from their parents as they learn to make their way through life.

There are always situations, too, that require helicopter-like parenting behavior. Sometimes the forgotten lunch or homework is crucial that particular day. Sometimes a teacher really is unfair, and a parent needs to intervene. Sometimes a couch-potato kid just needs to be signed up for a sports activity.

But those, really, are the exceptions. For the most part, it’s not good for kids when parents hover. While many kids like it when their parents do everything for them, others may be embarrassed by it or teased because of it. But the bigger problem with hovering is the message it sends the child: that he can’t do it himself.

Teachers, especially at the college level, are seeing more and more kids who (along with having an inflated ego from being told how wonderful they are for years) have very poor problem-solving and decision-making skills, and don’t know how to advocate for themselves. Instead of ensuring success and safety, helicopter parenting can do the opposite.

The bigger problem with hovering is the message it sends the child: that he can’t do it himself.

Helicopter parenting can also be dangerous for a child’s mental health. In fact, a study out of Keene State College showed that college freshmen with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas, as well as more anxious and self-conscious.

The hard truth is in order to learn independence and necessary life skills, kids need to be left alone. Because skills like making good choices, taking care of yourself, navigating relationships, managing conflict or finding ways around obstacles all take practice. And whenever you practice something, there is the chance that you will make a mistake. There’s even the chance that you will mess up badly.

No parent wants their child to mess up badly—or be in danger. But parents need to remember that as much as it is their job to help their children succeed and be safe, being successful and safe adults means learning to do things for themselves.

So think long and hard before you intervene with the teacher, bring the forgotten homework, sign your child up for something without asking him, or call your college-age daughter for the fourth time this week. Does your child really need you to do this? Does this helping really help?

We need to teach our children to fly, they say. Well, it’s really hard to fly with a helicopter overhead. As hard as it is, sometimes parents need to take a deep breath—and get out of the way.

3 thoughts on “Helicopter parenting: when helping isn't helpful

  1. I agree with most of the article; however, this needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Most parents know their children (child) and really are trying to do the right thing.

    When my daughter was elementary school age, I was encouraged to volunteer, reading to her classes, room parent (1st & 3rd grades), field trips and PTA, etc.

    Currently, she’s a college freshman and I talk to her almost on a daily basis. She initiates the majority of calls. Also, there are the Facebook messages and chats. We still discuss safety periodically; it’s more like a refresher! Part of that could be my chosen profession (law enforcement/security since 1976/lol).

    She is free to make her own decisions and experience the consequences of those decisions. I think it all has to do with the child’s personality and parents (parent) really knowing how their children deal with situations. This is accomplished by listening (really listening) and watching (really watching) their children as they grow.     For years I’ve read numerous articles, written by experts, about how parents need to be more involved with their children, school, diets, friends, etc. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Please, Helicopter Parents, Really!   For years I’ve read numerous articles, written by experts, about how parents need to be more involved with their children, school, diets, friends, etc. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Please, Helicopter Parents, Really!    
        For years I’ve read numerous articles, written by experts, about how parents need to be more involved with their children, school, diets, friends, etc. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Please, Helicopter Parents, Really!   
     

     

  2. I teach at the college level and see “helicopter” parents all of the time. The parent who e-mails about rescheduling an exam because she planned a family vacation during that time — yes, when school is in session.  The parent who wants to know why their child made a particular grade — can’t discuss that, your child is over 18 and federal law says they need to sign a release.  The parent who appeals their child’s parking ticket on campus — because mom signed up for the parking pass and didn’t give daughter all of the info about where to park.  The list goes on and on.  I told a friend that the first decision some of these kids will make on their own is whether to turn off life support for mom or dad.  

    I know dealing with these parents has made me a different and I hope better parent to my 9 year old.  I constantly remind myself to let her screw up in elementary school because the life lesson is much more important than a grade that really has no long-term impact on her.  I also give her advice on how to handle things but let her actually talk to the teacher, coach, friend, etc herself.  I love being the mom of a 9 year old right now but I don’t want to be the mom of a 9 year old when I am 70!

  3. When my two oldest went to college I felt they were almost catering to the helicopter parent. I had to sit through an orientation on how to load their ID cards with money, etc. even though my particular child was going to be using her own funds for doing laundry, snack machine, etc. It turned out that in their separate orientations they got no information on how to put their own money onto these cards! They had to figure it out from their resident adviser. In the same orientation I was told how to e-mail professors if I had questions; I can’t imagine getting in touch with my child’s college professors, but obviously other parents do.

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