As a graduate school professor for over a decade, I have witnessed a dramatic shift in the maturity and emotional capacity of the 20-somethings who matriculate into post-graduate education today. Young adults arrive at institutes of higher learning prepared for the academic demands, but are often emotionally ill-equipped to handle the stress associated with their newly-acquired independence and responsibilities. Much research has been performed on a phenomenon called “Helicopter Parenting” and its effect on young peoples’ ability to cope with life stressors once they reach adulthood. This style of parenting begins in childhood and has detrimental long-term effects.
The term helicopter parent was first coined by Dr. Haim Ginott in 1969 in a book called Parents & Teenagers. In performing research for his book, Dr. Ginott interviewed teenagers who mentioned that their parents would “hover over them like a helicopter.” The term quickly became popular and by 2011 was mainstream enough to warrant its own definition in the dictionary.
What is a helicopter parent?
This term is often used when referring to parents of teens and young adults who hover excessively and perform tasks for their child that the child is perfectly capable of handling themselves, such as calling teachers about grades, texting them to make sure they’re up and ready for school, or over-managing their day-to-day activities. Increasingly, this behavior is seen at younger and younger ages and has become much more prevalent in the youth sports arena. For example, parents angle and politic to make sure their child has a certain coach, they dress their child in the locker room long past when it is necessary, they constantly ‘consult’ with coaches to express concern, and they provide disproportionate amount of feedback to the child regarding his/her athletic performance. Early helicoptering behaviors lead to further development of the problem, as parents become more involved in their child’s activities, excessively interceding in their lives and solving problems for them. Research clearly shows that this has destructive results for children as they progress to the teenage and young adult years.
Why do parents hover?
The underlying motivations for parental over-involvement can be divided into five primary categories. First, they fear negative consequences for their child. Not making the RIGHT team or not making the team at all may seem catastrophic to a parent, especially if they feel that by personally intervening, they could prevent such failure. They want to protect their children and keep them safe from the disappointment of failure.
Second, they feel anxiety. They worry about what will happen in the future as a result of a tryout, a game or another hallmark event. “If he doesn’t make THIS team, he will never ‘break into’ the right league.” “If she doesn’t get to play THIS game, the coach won’t have the confidence to play her in the finals.” Worry can drive parents to be over-controlling. This can cause parents to invest more in the outcome of a child’s activities than the child herself. While they may operate with the best of intent, they are driven to excessively intercede by anxiety.
Third, they are compensating for their own childhood. Adults who were raised in a less-than-ideal environment may tend to overcompensate for the happiness of their own children. They provide excessive attention, material gifts and abundant opportunities for their children in an attempt to give their child more than they had in youth. Or perhaps unrealized dreams from their own youth are being projected onto their child. They hope that their child can accomplish the things that they did not.
Fourth, there exists a culture of peer pressure. Youth sports have become the ultimate “Keeping up with the Joneses” environment. In order to be viewed as one of the in-crowd, your child has to be on the right team, they must work with the right private coach. Additionally, witnessing the over-involvement of other parents causes them to feel that they should be doing the same. Parents often perceive that they are in competition with other parents. They must provide the same or better resources to their own child that others do for theirs. This creates a vicious cycle of parental over-involvement and is the underpinning of the culture that has become youth sports parenting today.
Finally, they feel guilt. Threaded throughout all four of the previous reasons, there is an underlying theme of guilt. Guilt is a powerful motivator for both positive and negative behavior. It is easy to believe that we are bad parents if we are not doing everything we can to improve our children’s lives.
How is Helicopter Parenting Harmful?
I want to be clear that, when demonstrating helicopter behaviors, a parent’s intent is good and rooted in love for their child. Of course, as parents, we want the best for our children. We want them to succeed. We want to protect them from failure and disappointment. We feel like better parents when our children are happy and satisfied. How, then, could this possibly be a bad thing? How can doing everything you can to facilitate your child’s success and well-being have unintended negative consequences?
There is a fine line between appropriate parental oversight and the over-involvement associated with helicopter parenting. Admittedly, the line is difficult to identify and is sometimes a moving target. It is difficult to know the difference between being an engaged parent and an over-involved parent.
One must first determine whether their own actions are rooted in fear and guilt. It is imperative that parents understand that there are important life lessons our children can only learn through age-appropriate failure and disappointment. Protecting children from all fear, anxiety and disappointment early in life robs them of the opportunity to learn the critical coping skills they will need later in life when the stakes become much higher and their parents are no longer around to solve their problems. Once parenting becomes driven by the fear of “what might happen if…?” it becomes more difficult for parents to keep a healthy perspective on what lessons are appropriate for their child to learn at each age.
Clearly put, children must learn to fail. Failure is a part of life. No one will escape adversity and obstacles throughout their life. What sets apart the successful from the unsuccessful individual is their ability to cope with adversity, learn from mistakes and use those lessons to move forward and be better the next time. When children are raised in a bubble of safety, in a world where they are told they are special, where they are never allowed to fail and problems are always solved for them instead of by them, they enter the age of independence believing that this is the way the entire world should treat them. As adults, we have all experienced first-hand that the world is a cold, hard place…full of injustice, challenges and obstacles. This is a stark reality that all of us must face at some point, and as parents, it is our job to prepare our children to function in the reality of society, not for what they think society should be. By failing to prepare children and teens for the real world, parents set them up for individual failure. They have shortchanged them of the ability to cope when times get tough. These children suffer the injustice of being tricked into a false sense of security, only to be unceremoniously shoved out into the harsh world of reality.
So what happens then? Eventually, age and life circumstances require teens and young adults to face increasingly challenging situations. School becomes more difficult. Competition increases for those coveted spots on high-level athletic teams. They must be competitive to gain entry into the best colleges. They must navigate the difficulties of intense graduate school programs and vie against other applicants for a job. What are the inevitable effects of having helicopter parents?
First and foremost, these children have an unrealistic sense of entitlement. Children who have always been protected from adversity develop an unrealistic expectation that someone will always be there to solve their problems for them. Because their parents have always been there to remove any obstacle in their path, they wrongfully learn that the obstacles are unfair and unreasonable and shouldn’t be there. They do not view obstacles as a challenge to be overcome, they see them as an injustice. They believe success without effort is owed to them, and are unable to comprehend that anyone or anything dare keep them from something that they want. Consequently, they seek every opportunity to blame failure on others, rather than to look introspectively at what their own role may have been in contributing to an undesirable outcome.
Second, they lack basic coping skills when faced with adversity. When one is never allowed to fail, they never learn how to pick themself up, dust themself off, learn from the mistakes and use those lessons to avoid failure in the future. When failure inevitably occurs, without those skills they are at a loss to know how to handle it. This results in excessive fear, anxiety and lack of self-esteem. Anecdotally, I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of young adults who are being treated both psychologically and pharmacologically for anxiety and depression. I fully attribute this to the lack of coping skills in this generation as a direct result of helicopter parenting.
Finally, these children lack the ability to make the best of a bad situation. The old proverb, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” is a foreign concept to them. They’ve never been handed a lemon. They’ve never even SEEN a lemon, let alone know how sour one tastes or how to make lemonade. If anyone dared to give them a lemon, mommy swooped in, snatched it away, and handed them a nice, sweet donut instead. These children have never learned how to use the negative emotions created by failure…anger, sadness and humility…to fuel their OWN fire to be better. Being allowed to fail can teach children to channel the negative emotions into intrinsic motivation for self improvement. The most successful people didn’t avoid failure, they failed a thousand times and tried a thousand and one times. They failed until they succeeded. Children of helicopter parents never learn this lesson.
How can you avoid being a helicopter parent?
How do you find that fine line, balancing the provision of appropriate parental guidance and oversight with allowing your child enough rope to develop the life skills he or she will need to be successful in the future? It is difficult to stand in the wings and watch your child struggle and to help them through the heartache of disappointment. This is the hardest part of parenting, but when we signed up to be a parent, we signed up for the good AND the bad. That doesn’t imply that our job is to ensure nothing bad ever happens. It means navigating the bad in the most constructive way and teaching your child to do the same.
Parenting should be approached with as much emphasis on appropriate guidance and oversight as is placed on developing the life skills that the child will need to be successful in the future.
- Force independence. Independence
should be nurtured gradually, in an age-appropriate manner. This is
the best way to instill confidence and self-esteem in your child. By
constantly doing things FOR your child, you unwittingly send the message to him
that you do not trust him to do it himself. He receives the
subconscious message that he is incapable and untrustworthy, resulting in lack
of self-confidence. This means that you must resist the urge to
solve problems for your child. If he has a problem with a teammate or if
he questions whether he is developing his athletic abilities as well as he
could be, then encourage HIM to speak with his coach. Allow him to
advocate for himself. You can always be there to move in, if necessary, but
empower your child to make the initial effort. This instills a
sense of independence and autonomy and develops communication skills that will
be critical for future success.
- Hold them responsible. When bad
things happen, do not immediately look to place blame on others. In
the face of adversity, the first questions you should ask your child are “What
do you think YOUR part was in that? Is there anything you could have done
differently?” Of course, there may be other factors in play and others
may share responsibility for adverse outcomes, but children must know that they
only hold power over their OWN actions and reactions. As long as they can
look themselves in the mirror and say “I did everything I could have
done. I tried as hard as I could,” then there is no shame in failure.
Life will not always be fair and children need to learn that lesson. By
participating in the blame game, parents only contribute to the development of
entitled, self-centered young adults who cannot conceive that they may have
played a role in a poor outcome.
- Let them fail. Failure is never easy, but learning the skills necessary to overcome it is critical to success. Experiencing the consequences of failure can become a powerful motivator for children to avoid similar mistakes or poor performance in the future. When your child texts you at work because she forgot her homework, don’t rush home to get it. Let her grade suffer. She will need to work that much harder to bring it back up, but she will have pride in accomplishment when she does. She will also learn how much harder it is to make up ground than to maintain it to begin with, so it is likely that she will avoid making the same mistake again. Or perhaps your son didn’t make the travel hockey team. Don’t call the coach to ask the reason why or contact the organization to demand that they create another team for all those who didn’t make the cut. It is heart-wrenching to watch his disappointment, but may just be harder on you than it is on him. If making the travel team is a goal he has set, he will work that much harder all season long to make himself more competitive so he can make the team next year. If he doesn’t, then maybe that’s a message to you that it might have been more important to YOU than it was to him.
Once a child learns HOW to fail, their anxiety about failure is lessened in the future. They learn that it isn’t the end of the world. It likely will happen again and they will survive. They will be better for it in the end.
This parenting business is difficult and it seems counter-intuitive that our primary responsibility is to render ourselves obsolete. But when you boil it down, that’s our ultimate goal as parents…to rear children who don’t NEED us. Take that step back and reflect upon your parenting practices. Are you doing everything you can to equip your child to become a happy, well-adjusted member of society? In conclusion, I’ll leave you with an old Native American proverb.
“Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.”