Grounding Our Inner Helicopter Parent

October 17, 2018
Helicopter Parents Illustration

Our best parenting starts when we stop trying to control our kids and begin to control ourselves.

An overabundance of enthusiasm: this is not the worst thing we could ever be accused of as parents. But we are…and in increasing numbers. Much of that zeal helps us become more involved and vigilant in our kids’ lives, but it’s also the basis of an overprotective parenting style alternately referred to as bulldozing, lawn-mowing, and helicoptering. All three point to the growing tendency of parents to either plow an obstacle-free path for our kids, or hover overhead and swoop in to correct and curate their journey.

Of course we mean well, but we can no sooner create the perfect ecosystem for our kids than we can create perfect kids. So then why do we exert so much energy trying to do exactly that? For most of us, it’s because we just don’t want to mess this up. We love our kids, the stakes seem high, and we we’re doing our best to ensure that they end up happy and successful. So what could possibly go wrong…

Just who are the helicopters?

The “helicopter parent” label now spans two generations of parents and it first gained real traction in 1990. It was around this time that Millennials were entering school and our GenXer parents’ penchant for micromanaging began presenting itself in the form of fragile, bubble-wrapped students and over-involved moms and dads. Oh, and don’t worry, our teachers had plenty to say about it.

Fast-forward a few decades and most Millennials are now parents (more than 60%) with our oldest kids entering high school and, as of this year, even in college. According to the guidance counselors advising these teenagers, their Millennial parents have adopted many of the same hovering, child-rearing behaviors as the preceding generation. “College freshman speak to their parents an average of 8.8 times a week,” reports a survey conducted by Time magazine, adding that “roughly half of young adults 18-29 speak to their parents daily.”

So, we’re stepping right into our parents’ flight seat, and the primary difference is that we now helicopter by committee, with the crowd-sourcing assistance of social media. Our fears and opinions are quickly validated by algorithm-generated news streams which conform to our innate biases, and we have troves of friends eager to “like” our Instagram posts grousing about our kids’ latest dilemma.

We’re overly involved—and who can blame us? We’ve waited longer than our parents to have kids and typically have higher incomes and education—all of which expand our access to the tools needed for delivering remarkable childhoods. It also boosts the (perceived) pressure to do so. We grew up on 24/7 news cycles, 9/11, and click bait online articles, all of which fed into the anxiety we already picked up from our own 1st gen Helicopter Parents. As their 2nd generation legacies, we want to “get this right” at all costs, but the costs are increasingly high—primarily for our kids.

How do we helicopter?

According to Judith Treas, the Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology at UC Irvine, we spend approximately 30% more time with our kids than our parents did (123 minutes per day for mothers and 79 minutes per day fathers), but those extra hours don’t necessarily translate into increased engagement. One of the peculiar hallmarks of helicoptering is being physically more present but borderline M.I.A. when it comes to mindfulness and active listening. Too often helicoptering can swap out meaningful time with our kids around the dinner table in exchange for over-programmed childhoods: this is how we end up parenting at our kids instead of with them.

At its most basic, overprotective parenting is our tendency to do for our sons and daughters what they can already (or almost) do for themselves. It’s a parent-child relationship that may have been developmentally appropriate at some point, but just hasn’t evolved in step with our kids.

If you think cutting our 13-year-old’s steak at a restaurant sounds embarrassing, how about calling our son’s college professor to haggle over his latest grades, or accompanying our daughter to her first post-grad job interview. “Parents are contacting us directly,” says Betty Smith, university recruiting manager at Hewlett-Packard. “This generation is not embarrassed by it; they’re asking for parents’ involvement.” Brandi Britton, a district president of Office Team, the nation’s largest staffing agency, surveyed 608 of her senior recruiters: 35% of them said that applicants involved their parents in the job-seeking process to their detriment. “Complain, cajole, promote, repeat.” Let’s all hover over those scenarios for a moment and gain the kind of bird’s eye view that we rarely have in the moments when we’re the one piloting the helicopter.

There are nine kinds of Helicopter Parents ranging from the “The Bodyguard” to “The Lobbyist” and “The Usurper,” but no matter our particular style for over-reaching the mark, we’re all well-served to retool our good intentions into a parenting style that actually helps our kids become their best selves.

We sometimes interpret our kids’ struggles as a poor reflection on our parenting skills, rather than as growth opportunities for them.

Why do we hover?

Well…it’s complicated. Some of us are bringing work strategies and skills into the home (micromanagement, performance bonuses, outsized pressure) and these efforts generate lopsided results with our children. They aren’t employees, and they tend to bristle when subjected to workplace expectations from mom and dad. There are others among us whose hover motivation is regret from our own childhoods, which manifests with our trying to correct things from our past via our kids’ brief pass through adolescence. In our parental insecurity we’re also prone to interpreting our kids’ struggles as a poor reflection on our skills as moms and dads, rather than as growth opportunities for our kids: in 2016 that was 46% of us according to the Pew Research Studies Survey on the American family.

No matter our specific motivations, we certainly don’t set out to make our kids’ childhoods all about us, but it’s easy to do if we’re not regularly examining why we tend to cosset and control our kids. The next time we swoop in to rewrite our kids’ homework or lobby the varsity coach to bump up our kids’ team standing, we might ask ourselves if we’re (possibly) jockeying for Harvard because we didn’t get in.

The good news about helicoptering instincts

We can all appreciate a recent statistic that matched up regions of the country awash with self-identifying helicopter parents and fewer incidents of childhood harm and neglect. But of course, we know the difference between preventing hazards and hovering with unrealistic goals of ensuring our kids’ happiness, enrichment and safety. The latter isn’t likely, but unfortunately, the negative outcome of helicoptering is.

The price of parenting too much

Fragile kids eventually become fragile adults, and robbing our children of I-did-it! moments with intrusive parenting leads to this hidden cost of hovering: our kids can have underdeveloped self-esteem, basic life skills, motivation, decisiveness and independence. Reports of failure to launch, depression and anxiety are still rising after decades of already doing so, and such experts as former Stanford University Dean Julie Lithcott-Haims agree that increasing resilience and autonomy in our kids is the most powerful way to reverse this trend. “We want so badly to help our kids by shepherding them from milestone to milestone, and by shielding them from failure and pain,” says Lithcott-Haims. “But overhelping causes harm. It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”

Trusting our kids enough to take reasonable risks in the right settings prepares them to do likewise once they’re out in the world. But over the last 40 years, the autonomy trends have only headed in the opposite direction. The percentage of our kids walking or biking to school on their own has dropped from 48% to 13%, a reminder that free-range parenting was once alive and well in our communities. The statistics of child abduction have actually gone down during this same period, but our concern about its possibility has steadily increased, along with a slew of other parenting anxieties.

Tracking over that same four decades, psychological surveys of college students have increasingly reported psychological problems as being a significant, growing factor among students, and they point to helicopter parenting as the primary reason students aren’t emotionally prepared for college. For the past 53 years, UCLA has conducted an annual study among college students, surveying 137,456 college students in 2016, and documenting “a record-high of 11.9 percent of students reporting “frequently” feeling depressed in the past year, and 13.9 percent said there was a “very good chance” they would seek personal counseling in college.” Students were asked about anxiety and 34.5 percent said they felt that way ‘frequently.’

Fostering independence means constantly renegotiating the role we play in our kids’ lives.

The value of course correction

These certainly aren’t the outcomes we intend when we throw our back into enthusiastic parenting, and the very act of recognizing this style as “overprotective” brings with it meaningful insight and opportunity for adjustments.

Fostering independence means constantly renegotiating the role we play in our kids’ lives as they age out of one developmental stage and into another. Our youngest children “thrive from an abundance of attention,” according to Dr Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Toddler Center at Columbia University. “Babies who receive more sensitive and responsive care become more competent and independent toddlers.” So, this is where we start our parenting journey: all in, 24/7, sleep-deprived.

But as they grow, our kids start requiring different things from us, and despite our best intentions, parental styles can get stuck in well-worn patterns. It’s not easy to react in real time to the signals (and sometimes outright requests) we get from our kids. After all, in the passing of a short few years, we’re still essentially the same people even as our kids gain significant size, insight and self-reliance. What they need from us today just isn’t what they needed yesterday.

Continuously ask ourselves: what fits now?

Spending meaningful time with our kids helps us to calibrate, and recalibrate, the settings for our relationships with them. Family time around the dinner table, group projects, and special one-on-one activities promote the kind of insight that leads to bespoke relationships. Parenting isn’t one-size-fits-all, even between the same parent and the same child.

Our kids are sometimes able to tell us when our parenting needs resizing, but, like their parents, kids can also get stuck in patterns that may no longer be age-appropriate. Our teenagers may still need reminders to take their daily shower, but are we also still laying out their pajamas for them? Are they asking us to? Can we be the ones to say no?

Drones vs helicopters

If we really, really feel the need to be air-born, we can always consider trying more of a drone approach, one where we hang back a bit more, create less distracting noise and wind, and parent a bit more reactively than proactively as our kids mature. Increasingly we can imagine handing over the drone controls to our kids so that our robust skill-set is summoned rather than omnipresent. Perhaps instead of pre-selecting our daughter’s list of universities and majors during the college admission process, we could just let her know we’re there to support her if she needs help. Instead of compelling our twin 1st graders to dress alike, maybe we could ask them what they’d like to wear to class. The scope and depth of our parenting is big, and there are many ways to course-correct our current style through large and small daily decisions.

There is a kind of “connected autonomy” that we can all lay claim to in our homes if we’re willing to extend ourselves a bit beyond our comfort zone. It includes boundaries we allow our kids to set, and adjust as needed; it requires accountability on their part for the choices they make within those boundaries; and it encourages the kind of growth mindset we could all benefit from as we navigate terrain on foot that we previously only saw from the air. It’s a slightly unfamiliar landscape, but it’s a place where good intentions actually have a strong chance of creating good results.

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