Are we helicopter parents? Or should we be?

Daughter looking a phone and ignoring her mother

Image courtesy: getkidsinternetsafe.com

Some parents, like helicopters, hover over their children, supervising and overseeing their life. The term ‘helicopter parent’ (also called a ‘cosseting parent’ or a ‘cosseter’) refers to a parent who is extremely and closely attentive to a child’s problems and experiences, particularly at school and college.

Origin of the term

The concept of ‘helicopter parenting’ appeared first in the bestselling book written by Dr. Haim Ginott in 1969, titled ‘Between Parent & Teenager’, in which a teen complains, “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter…” However, it was Jim Fay and Foster Cline who first coined the term ‘helicopter parent’, in 1990. By the 2000s, the term had become widely used, to refer to parents who try to direct and control every aspect of a child’s life, such complaining to teachers about the grades he/she receives, and deciding what kind of clothes he/she should wear.

What do helicopter parents do?

When the child is small, helicopter parents constantly spend time with him, playing with him and directing his behavior. They hardly ever leave the child alone. In elementary school, helicopter parents will make sure that the child has a particular (the best) teacher, and then keep constant contact with the teacher, discussing their ward. They also select the child’s activities, and even friends. These parents may do homework and school projects for their kids. Once the child leaves school, the helicopter parent follows him/her to the university, providing assistance in getting admission in the course of choice, and meeting professors/ deans every now and then. Some parents have been known to extend their parenting even after university, at the workplace, where they try to influence managers/bosses to raise their kids’ salary or to provide better working conditions.

Helicopter parents vs Tiger parents

‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ by American author and lawyer Amy Chua was published in 2011, and it immediately became an international hit for its description of the kind of parenting style that Chinese parents often adopt. Social media commentators have pointed out that China’s one-child policy is an aggravating factor in the increased rate of helicopter parenting there. China’s Tianjin University has been organizing “love tents” to accommodate parents who have traveled there with their matriculating freshmen, letting them sleep on mats laid out on the gym floor.

The Chinese parenting style depicted in The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been compared to western helicopter parenting. Nancy Gibbs, writing for Time magazine, commented on both being ‘extreme parenting’, but noted that there are key differences between the two. Tiger Mothers are focused on success in particular fields such as music and math, while helicopter parents are obsessed with preventing failure at all costs. Another difference was the Tiger Mother’s emphasis on hard work, with parents adopting an authoritarian and rigid approach with their kids, which Gibbs contrasts with western helicopter parents who treasure their children and cherish their friendship and company, a little too much.

Why do parents become helicopters?!

There are quite a few reasons why parents hover over their children.

  1. Anxiety

According to Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit, and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide, parents worry that their kids may get hurt and be a failure in life, if they did not guide them. As social ills such as drug use and violence are spiraling up, parents feel that they have to protect their kids all the way down their life. Parents fear that low grades, not getting into a certain college or not making the football team may affect the child’s future badly, and could be avoided with better parental involvement.

  1. Guilt

When parents see their peers being overinvolved in their kids’ lives, they feel guilty that they are not doing the same. This works especially when the overinvolved parents’ kids seem to the doing well. This sort of peer pressure is a major factor that pushes many parents to helicopter parenting style.

  1. Overcompensation

If the parents had suffered from neglect or lack of love when they were children, they might try to ensure that their own kids do not experience the same. “I don’t want my kid to suffer the same fate,” is what many helicopter parents say.

  1. A competitive society

Our modern society and its institutions such as schools and colleges are more competitive than ever. It is often the rule of the survival of the fittest. When there are limited numbers of college seats and employment opportunities, and more and more youngsters are competing for them, parents feel that their kids will have a competitive edge if they help.

  1. Highly educated and affluent parents

In Asia especially, the number of computer literate, highly educated and affluent parents is on the rise. Highly educated parents, especially mothers if they are not working, have a lot of time and energy, which they invest in their kids.

Consequences of helicopter parenting

Parents being overinvolved in their kids’ lives definitely has its benefits in the short-term. First, the child is protected from negative influences and bad friends. It also makes the child’s life easier.

However, there are overwhelming negative consequences too.

  1. Increased anxiety in children.

According to a study at the University of Mary Washington, over-parenting is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression in children and teenagers. The major reason for this is that having been protected from experiencing failure and defeat in early life, the child is not well-equipped to face the inevitable setbacks that life offers every now and then.

  1. Decreased confidence

When children are not allowed to do things on their own, they have no chance to develop confidence and self-esteem. Their sense of self-efficacy is underdeveloped, and this may lead to lack of autonomy and sense of wellbeing in adult life.

  1. Sense of entitlement.

Children who were always given the best of everything can get used to the best things in life. They feel entitled to get everything in life suited to their own needs. This most certainly leads to disappointment and difficulty in adjustment in social settings in later life.

  1. Undeveloped life skills

Parents who always clear plates, wash clothes, tie shoes, button up shirts, pack lunches and sharpen pencils for their kids even when they are capable of doing all these themselves, prevent their kids from learning these life skills themselves. The result is a high probability of them becoming adults who are unfit to manage their own lives. Deborah Gilboa, M.D founder of AskDoctorG.com, says, “Failure and challenges teach kids new skills, and, most important, teach kids that they can handle failure and challenges.”

  1. Undeveloped coping skills

If parents are always preventing problems from happening, and helping to clean up the mess, the child does not learn to cope with failure, loss and disappointment. “Many of the consequences [parents] are trying to prevent–unhappiness, struggle, not excelling, working hard, no guaranteed results–are great teachers for kids and not actually life-threatening,” says Gilboa.

How to avoid helicopter parenting?

In “How to raise an adult’, former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims urges parents to avoid over-helping their children.

How can we avoid being helicopter parenting? How can we love and care for our children without hindering their ability to learn important life skills?

  1. Let children do chores appropriate to their age. An eight year old can help clean the dining table. A 10-year-old can assist in washing dishes.
  2. As soon as they are capable, let your kids eat, dress, tie shoe laces, button up shirts and take bath by themselves.
  3. Let your kids learn some basic life skills such as cooking. Devote some time during holidays to teach them how to make some basic meals.
  4. Do not, ever, do your kids’ homework for them. For projects, some logistic support can be given, but the child should do the major work.
  5. When children have fights with their friends, do not interfere. You can give some general advice, but nothing more than that.
  6. Give your child alone time and some down time, during which he/she is free to explore the environment without supervision.
  7. When you go shopping, let your child pick some of the items, and pay for them.
  8. When children face problems, do not solve them for them; rather, encourage them to think of options to solve their problems, and help them arrive at the best one.
  9. Do not apologize for your kids’ mistakes. They have to do it themselves.
  10. Let them know they have to face the consequences of the actions they do, by themselves.

This is not to say that parents should leave kids to be on their own early in life. There should be a lot of love and care, but such love and care should be enabling growth and independence, rather than encouraging dependence.

Finally, as often as possible, remind your children that you are there for them, if and when they need you.

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