Guest Post By Brianna Meiers
There are often as many ways to approach child development as there are variations in how children grow and the rate at which they progress. Parental involvement is usually key, but it can go too far, as the post below describes. Parenting psychology writer Brianna Meiers takes a hard look at the trend of “helicopter parenting,” and discusses the ways in which micromanaging our children’s lives can actually do more harm than good. Interested in learning more? Click here to access more of Brianna’s writings, particularly as related to formal education programs in psychology.
Helicopter Parenting Complicates School, Sports and Leisure in a Very Detrimental Way
Parenting children through the trials of the modern world presents challenges largely unknown to prior generations. Today’s students are often defined more by the strength of their paper resumes than their characters or individual attributes. Everyone from college admissions officials to summer camp recruitment offices are interested in such abstract things as “well roundedness”; “character-building life experiences”; and “ability to bring a diverse perspective.” This has thrust many of the most well-intentioned parents into overdrive, frantically looking for ways to boost their children’s market profile. The phenomenon of parents micromanaging the lives and schedules of their offspring is known in the popular media as “helicopter parenting.” In most cases, this term is used disparagingly—while the intention is often good, the results, as more and more universities and employers are finding, can be incredibly detrimental. Helping children is one thing, but robbing them of their ability to fight their own battles and face failure and rejection with head held high is quite another.
The biggest problem with the “helicopter” method is that it prevents children from learning how to make their own decisions—and in so doing, perpetually shields them from the consequences of bad ones. The motivation is rarely so negative, though. Most parents who adopt these tactics really are just trying to help.
“Helicopter parenting appears to be inappropriately intrusive and managing, but done out of strong parental concern for the well-being and success of the child,” a team of researchers from Utah’s Brigham Young University said in a report recently summarized in USA Today. “High involvement, low autonomy granting and presence of emotional support in the relationship reflects a uniquely distinguishable approach to parenting,” the researchers said.
Symptoms of Helicopter Parenting
In nearly all cases, helicopter parenting emerges from a fear or uncertainty about the future. This is certainly understandable, given the unpredictability of the world today. Children do need more guidance and help than ever before, and adults are in a better position to help advise and counsel them.
Advising and counseling is different from actual intervention and by-proxy doing, however. “These are parents who run themselves ragged with work and hyper-parenting,” New York Times columnist Judith Warner has written of the helicoptering mentality. “They’re parents who are physically hyper-present but somehow psychologically M.I.A.: so caught up in the script that runs through their heads about how to ‘do right’ by their children that they can’t see when the excesses of keeping up, bulking up, getting a leg up and generally running scared send the whole enterprise of ostensible care and nurturing right off the rails.”
Parents in this category are often responsible for things like “no score” soccer games with awards for every participant, so that everyone feels special; they may also be highly invested in proofreading homework and negotiating with teachers for the grades they think their child “deserved.”
This sort of behavior can extend well into young adult life. Parents of millennials have been known to butt in to their children’s goings-on in college, often calling and e-mailing professors on their child’s behalf. In extreme cases, the involvement can also extend to the job market. Some firms are now so used to parental involvement that they prepare “welcome packets” for new hires as well as their parents—though most draw the line at parental participation in things like interviews and salary negotiations.
Key Comparison: Attachment Parenting
It can be easy to confuse a helicopter parent with a parent who has attachment issues. Though the two sometimes overlap, they are in most cases considered distinct. While a helicopter parent is constantly hovering and pushing a child to succeed for the child’s own benefit, a parent with an attachment mentality is often using the same tactics to reach personal satisfaction or fulfillment. While helicoptering seeks to pave a way for the child’s success and health, attachment is a way for the parents to put their expertise about the world and commitment to selfless service to use.
The key difference, then, is in the motivation: a helicopter parent sees it as his or her job to help a child succeed for his own good, whilst an attachment parent uses a child’s success to validate his or her own self-worth.
Unintended Side Effects and Concerning Results
Both styles of parenting can be harmful, albeit for different parties. In helicopter situations, the children are usually the ones to suffer. As these kids mature, they often find themselves dependent on their parents’ praise or, in many cases, intervention in order to feel happy or complete.
Attached parents, particularly mothers, often find the endless cycle of caring, providing, and giving exhausting to the point of mental distress. “If intensive mothering is related to so many negative mental health outcomes, why do women do it?” the Christian Science Monitor asked in a recent article about the ill effects of attachment parenting. “They may think it makes them better mothers, so they are willing to sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children’s cognitive and socio-economic outcomes.” This can have a range of negative consequences for parents and children both.
The biggest criticism of over-involved parenting is that is does not properly equip children to face life’s hurdles independently. If mom or dad has always been there the smooth the way of prevent disappointment before it happens, a child may grow up ill-equipped to respond the first time he receives a bad grade, or does not get the promotion he wanted. Universities and entry-level employers often refer to young adults in this category as “teacups”—having spent their whole life within the protective confines of a china shop home, they are liable to shatter at the first whiff of unfamiliar force.
“If a child is continually shielded from disappointment and inadequacy, he is being denied the chance to learn how to persevere, try again, and survive the challenges that life provides,” Robyn Silverman, a child psychologist, told the CBS Early Show in 2010. “When parents take the reins, they do not allow their children to learn how to take charge of their own lives. The repercussions can be long lasting.”
Advice for Parents Looking to Change
Just as it is never too early to start giving a child an advantage, there is never a bad time to—gently—let him start exploring the world on his own. Backing down is often easiest for parents of young children, as patterns are more easily altered at this stage. Allowing a child to falter, then helping her pick up the pieces is often better than simply shielding her from the failure altogether. The parent is still involved, but is teaching rather than simply protecting.
Things are often harder once kids hit college and beyond, though there is still time for improvement. Parents can begin by limiting their calls to maybe just one or two a day, instead of four or five, Indiana University psychologist Chris Meno advises. She also recommended that parents “flip” conversations: when their son or daughter complains of a problem, rather than immediately offering to intervene ask the child to brainstorm possible solutions. In some cases, refusing intervention and allowing the child to face the consequences—late bills, for instance, or poor grades—may be the best medicine, provided the parents are there to provide support, comfort, and reassurance.
Parents need to remember to let up on themselves, too. “Helicopter parents may need to first give themselves a break — of course they want to protect their sons and daughters from the world’s perils. But they need to follow this with considering the vital role of developing independence in their child,” Meno said.