Helicopter Parenting: How to Reverse the Overparenting Trend

If you would have your son to walk honorably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them – not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone. Anne Bronte

In other words, in today’s lingo, helicopter parenting should be avoided. Psychologist Linda Sapadin‘s definition:

Helicopter parents are so named because they hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether their kids need them or not. These parents rush in to prevent any harm from befalling their children – not just physical harm but ‘unfair’ treatment at school, on the athletic field or in extra-curricular activities.

Helicopter parents ‘do’ for their kids when their kids have trouble doing for themselves. The reason they ‘do’ always seems reasonable. A child with a filled social calendar is too busy, too distracted or too forgetful to take responsibility for his own stuff. So, a caring parent picks up an application, drops off an assignment, fixes a fight between friends or ‘helps’ him do his homework.

Hara Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps, has addressed on her website the differences between “spoiling” and helicopter parenting, otherwise known as overparenting:

Spoiling is driven by the demands of the child. For any number of reasons, a parent gives in to a child’s demand for something–say, a toy. A child gets his or her way.

Overparenting is driven by the demands of the adult. And it isn’t necessarily focused on things (like toys) or on rules. A parent consumed by anxiety for a child’s achievement calls a teacher to protest a grade given to the student. Or sends a kid off to ballet camp with an eye to developing an array of extracurricular skills that will ultimately impress college admissions officers. It isn’t necessarily something the child has asked for. It is something that soothes the parental anxiety. It may have the effect of spoiling a child, giving a child a sense that any demand will be met, but that is not preordained, and it has many other negative effects as well.

Effects on the kids? Whereas spoiling may lead to kids who are “self-centered, throw frequent temper tantrums, have a low tolerance for frustration, and grow up having problems controlling anger,” the overparented kids don’t develop a sense of self, for one. Also: “They grow up overly compliant. They lack coping skills because everything has been done for them by anxious parents. They’re weak from within, and it’s a pervasive weakness. The grow up risk-averse and unable to make decisions on their own. They, too, have a low tolerance for frustration.”

Clinician Madeline Levine, in a New York Times piece, contrasts helicopter parenting with the more effective “authoritative” parenting, which mixes having a certain level of expectations with allowing a child to be his or her own person. “The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality. If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality. Ditto nightly ‘reviews’ of homework, repetitive phone calls to ‘just check if you’re O.K.’ and ‘editing’ (read: writing) your child’s college application essay.”

Gever Tully‘s TED talk “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do” is an argument for less overparenting, which actually leads to increased safety. (His book is 50 Dangerous Things.)

Several experts have posted responses to The Huffington Post‘s current highlighting of the above talk. Dr. Jim Taylor suggests that five other things are even more “dangerous” while also being deeply effective. These are presented below. For this and what follows, click on name links for more details.

  1. Give Your Children Conditional Love 
  2. Don’t Praise Your Children
  3. Let Your Children Fail
  4. Let Your Children Feel Bad
  5. Don’t Give Your Children Your iPhone

Psychologist Michael S. Broder advises the following principles be taught to children:

  1. Proudly celebrate your uniqueness
  2. Take risks
  3. Stand up to bullies
  4. Question rules that don’t make sense

And Claire McCarthy, MD, favors her own kind of childhood experience in which there was lots of freedom to learn and experience things.

Somehow, as parents and a society, we have to find the middle ground. We have to teach our children about safety and teach them some concrete skills (like how to swim, climb, use tools, identify helping adults, or think through a tough situation) to keep themselves safe when we can’t be there. And then, we need to take a deep breath, tell them we love them, and let them go out into the world without us. And if they call us and ask us what to do, we need to take another deep breath and say: you can do this. Give it a try.

It’s one of the many paradoxes of parenting: sometimes being a good parent means doing less, not more.

Unrelated to the TED talk responses is another resource I found online, psychologist Wendy Mogel‘s “26-step program for good parents gone bad,” aka Overparenting Anonymous.

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