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.