A Hidden Cause of Helicopter Parenting

A few days ago a friend of mine posted this article from Slate, “Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up: Helicopter parenting has caused my psychotherapy clients to crash land.”

The author is a mental health professional who’s seen a dramatic rise in the number of millenials who end up in her office, unable to cope with their burgeoning adulthood.

I’m glad this author addresses the narcissism trope, which I’m so tired of:

It seems as if every article about millennials claims that these kids must all have narcissistic personality disorder. It’s easy to generalize an entire population by its collective Facebook statuses. However, narcissism is not Amy’s problem, or the main problem with millennials.

The big problem is not that they think too highly of themselves. Their bigger challenge is conflict negotiation, and they often are unable to think for themselves. The overinvolvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.

We’ve all heard this. People love to kvetch about helicopter parents; we pass around stories of parents who go on job interviews with their adult children, or who call colleges during the application process, pretending to be the high school student, or who step in for their high schooler, arguing for higher grade on tests. My sense is that these egregious stories are outliers, though there does seem to be an uptick in this helicopter mentality among certain socioeconomic groups, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of it myself.

My question is, why? Why are people choosing to parent this way? If we can get to the cause, we can start to correct it. I’ve heard a number of explanations:

  • the increasing competitiveness of college admissions and the job market;
  • the spiraling cost of higher education, leading to a “customer is always right” mentality;
  • a media culture that likes to peddle fear of the bogeyman lurking behind over corner, to the point that parents are terrified to let their kids roam free in the world (figuratively and literally)
  • a rejection of authoritarian, “do it my way” models of parenting in favor of a teaching/shepherding model. In theory, this shepherding model should be about equipping the child to make her own decisions and live in the world, but other factors combine to create a bitter result: buddy-buddy parents who are so petrified of their kids’ failing that they flatten every bump in the road.

I suggest another cause underlying this stuff. I haven’t heard it mentioned much, but I think it’s a factor we shouldn’t ignore. It has to do with time.

Nobody starts out intending to impersonate his child to a college admissions officer. It happens over a period of years, and it happens with a thousand tiny decisions, starting when they are young. Decisions like:

1. When my child is having an emotional reaction to something, am I able to stop what I’m doing and let them have their feelings, or am I going to find a quick and easy way to smooth things over?

2. If my child absolutely refuses to wear a coat, will I let them go without one and suffer the discomfort—and learn a valuable lesson—or am I going to “make” them wear one?

3. If a student is having a conflict with a teacher’s teaching style, will I coach him first on how to address the issue, and support those efforts, intervening as a last resort? Or will I immediately swoop in and take over, demanding that the teacher conform to my child’s learning style?

4. Am I going to let my child play freely on the monkey bars, knowing there’s a teensy-tiny chance they could fall and break their arm, or worse? Or am I going to follow them around squawking “be careful, be careful” like a paranoid cockatoo?

I argue that the way you answer these questions, and a thousand others, is directly related to factors such as:

1. whether you’ve built any margins into your schedule to address a child’s emotional life, as opposed to pacifying or appeasing them so you can get on to the next thing, or

2. your tolerance of a cold and complaining child, which is directly related to your own stress level, or

3. whether you’re able do the hard work of coaching, which will take much longer than just doing it yourself, or

4. whether you have time for a trip to the emergency room. (OK, nobody really has ER time built into their schedule.)

I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent by temperament. Sure, I hate as much as anyone to see my kids experience pain or loss, but I try to take the long view and understand that failures and setbacks build resilience. That said, the times that I find myself firing up the chopper are precisely those times when I am too busy, too stressed, or too anxious to stop and help the kids work through their issues. I’d rather solve it myself, brush my hands off, and get on with life.

But in this parenting business, short-cuts (while sometimes necessary) can be costly. One of my parenting mantras is “the harder thing is the easier thing.” That is, doing what seems harder at the time is often easier in the long run: investing the time in helping a child understand her own emotions, or advocate for herself, pays huge dividends down the road. Building margins into my schedule is my biggest spiritual challenge at the moment, but I need to, not just for myself but for my children.

Because there’s no way I’m accompanying them on a job interview.


13 thoughts on “A Hidden Cause of Helicopter Parenting

  1. Susan

    Amen, there. I, too, find that when time is at a minimum, I just do stuff for Selam that I would NEVER do ordinarily. And then I’ve set up a confusing boundary–and it’s all my fault!

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      That’s an excellent point, about the lack of consistency. And when you’re rushed/stressed you don’t have time or energy to explain why *this* time is different…

      And again, sometimes we have to swoop and fix and short-cut. Life is full. But we also need to check ourselves.

  2. Mamala

    Parents aren’t supposed to go on job interviews with their children…that’s what grandparents are for. J/K 🙂

    Great insights in this blog.

  3. Bob Braxton

    Not the helicopter part but the Time part – does that fall (almost) entirely on the hips of Moms? When I was “home” from work, yes I did a lot of home-based parenting – including the “let fail.” But when I was at work, I was at work. Are there Moms that can really (be totally comfortable when they must) do that? Reading about: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and …” From “Tell Me A Riddle” by Tillie Olsen, Delta/Seymour Lawrence, New York, 1956 (in 1987 book by Elaine Neil Orr, who teaches at NC State).

  4. Paula

    Yes, time is an issue. As are the other items on this list — fear of competition in a shrinking job market, for example.

    In other words, these are not problems with private solutions. The mom who is working two jobs because minimum wage won’t put food on the table — that’s a collective decision we’ve made. So is the fact that we have such terrible maternity/paternity policies, long work weeks and ridiculous vacation policies, compared to the rest of the developing world. Busy parents are the direct result of a sick economic system. Let’s not put the burden on parents who we judge as “unwilling to do the hard work of coaching,” until we are sure we know what they are juggling in the rest of their lives.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I’m really glad you brought this up. You’re absolutely right.

      And I’m sure there are individual parents who are behaving as I described because they are working two jobs to make ends meet and are just trying to get through the day. That’s not what I see in my relatively affluent suburb of Washington DC, however. I don’t presume to to know the private economic pressures people face, and we’re all captive to the system you describe in one way or another. But some of us—not all of us, but some of us—impose this on ourselves. It is a public problem for everyone and a private problem for some.

      In other words, I don’t judge these parents. On some level, I am one of them.

      I also didn’t say they were “unwilling” to do the hard work. I said “unable.” I think that’s an important distinction.

      Thank you for your comment, Paula.

  5. Katy Stenta

    I find that if we don’t give our children responsibilities, they never learn how to be responsible. Children thrive on boundaries, set a boundary, and stick to it. Follow thru on rewards and follow thru on the consequences. Building trust with our child means trusting them so that they can become trustworthy.


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