Are You a Helicopter Parent?

May 13, 2013

Are You a Helicopter Parent?

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Lizzy Stewart for the New York Times.

When our first child was about a year old, my husband and I took him to the neighborhood park, more for ourselves, I suppose, than for our baby since he was far too small for any of the playground equipment. My husband put our big-eyed baby boy about an arm’s length up the tube slide a few times and held him as he slid down.

Justin was enthusiastic about this new experience, but our son didn’t seem to like it much. He whimpered, and to my surprise, Justin continued to slide him down. Frustrated with this lack of parental response, I rushed over and grabbed our baby with some searing indictment about lackadaisical parenting.

I’d no sooner rescued him from his offending father and that awful tube slide than I turned indignantly away and conked little baby’s head full force on the metal playground pole.

Oops.

My husband, as perhaps you can imagine, has loved telling this story for the last eight years, and I laugh, too, of course. It’s a classic tale of misguided zeal, and I’m surprised to find that as our children grow, a new meaning to the story is surfacing.

I think it was my first offense as a helicopter parent, the term used to describe parents who “hover”, and (depending on who you ask) either offer extra support for their children, or interfere to the point of undermining their children’s growth. I couldn’t believe the apparently opposite results of studies on helicoptering. Clearly, it’s a topic parents and researchers are discussing. This study, referenced in Psychology Today, suggests “overinvolved” parents have a positive benefit, and this one, from Reuters, suggests helicoptering can be linked to depression in adult children. I tend to like this balanced approach, which suggests assessing both the need and desire for help before jumping in. And I also appreciate this piece, which advocates that challenges lead to personal growth. “If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy,” author Madeline Levine writes, “you are in the wrong business.”

Our son, 9, is now quite adept on the twisty slides, and instead I’m tempted to rescue him from playground fights, forgotten snack money, unkind substitute teachers, or the hurtful words he exchanges with his brother. I guess I never expected that so much of parenting would be biting my tongue and wringing my hands while I let my children figure things out on their own.

What about you? Have you been tempted to rescue your children from life’s challenges, only to find that it didn’t really serve them in the end? And how do you balance love and support with fostering independence and personal responsibility?

P.S. — I was surprised that this interesting article, The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting, appeared in Time 3½ years ago. Has our culture moved very far away from overparenting in the years since it was written? And I think many of us will relate to Tracey Stewart‘s example of over-involvement when it comes to art projects. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves!

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christa the BabbyMama May 13, 2013 at 8:35 am

If I had a good answer to your question, I’d be making a zillion bucks as a parenting expert :) Instead, I think going with your gut (while also considering what the head has to say) is the best anyone can do. Every kiddo is different!

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2 Amy Hackworth May 13, 2013 at 10:06 am

Christa, I think that’s the bottom line for me, too. I’ll have to consider circumstances and the individual child. Although I could probably safely take a few steps back in any given situation with my kids. I think I’m a bit of a hover-er.

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3 Angela May 13, 2013 at 9:44 am

Once, when my eldest was about 18 months old we were at the park. She made a mad dash for the swings and I grabbed her just seconds before she got kicked by a kid on the swings. This lovely old man came up to me and asked me, “Is she your first?” I said yes. He responded, “I say this lovingly. It shows. I have 8 children. Sometimes when they get kicked in the head, they needed to get kicked in the head.”

I have taken his words to heart. Not literally, of course. I will still rescue a toddler from an oncoming swing any day. But I think about his words any time my children have the opportunity to fail safely, but I have the opportunity to “save” them. When we don’t allow our children the opportunity to see that a single failure doesn’t result in the end of the world, we prevent them from learning that it is ok to try new things. If they’ve never failed, they’ll never learn that we’ll still love them if they fail, that they can try again, that the sun will still rise, that failing is a necessary element of an adventurous life.

I think this ties into our conversation a while ago about the dangers (or lack thereof) of overpraise. During that discussion a lot of people said that their parents’ overpraise made them feel like failure wasn’t an option. I wonder how much of that fear was tied to the overpraise and how much was tied to never having the opportunity to fail. They never got the chance to see that their parents still loved them and were still proud of them even though they failed.

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4 Amy Hackworth May 13, 2013 at 10:07 am

Angela, I see the connection to the praise issue, too. Thanks for your comment. And I love it when one phrase of advice really sticks with you and has meaning for years. Good for you for being humble enough to listen to a stranger’s advice, and wise enough to let your children safely fall. That can be so hard.

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5 Summer May 13, 2013 at 11:24 am

I love this! I think it’s true – I was a later in life baby, the “golden child” they called me. No pressure, right? ;) It took my entire 20′s to realize that failure’s not a bad thing and that I don’t always need to call my mommy. I think children need to know that things don’t always turn out like you want, and that a large chunk of life is doing things you’re not thrilled about (laundry, anyone?). It’s not always “fun,” but you appreciate the fun so much more….or that’s what I tell myself. Stupid laundry. :P

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6 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 13, 2013 at 10:42 am

This is kind of fascinating as a mommy-to-be. We’re constantly talking about what we think our “parenting style” (if there is such a thing?) is going to be, but I think all in all we’ll probably try to duplicate what we think our parents did right and change what they did “wrong.” I say this knowing full well in forty years I’m going to be shaking my head that mama knew best after all, and her “wrong” was the best thing after all.

But kind of related, there’s a really good piece in Psychology Today that was published in 2004 and polished up this February – http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200411/nation-wimps

Interesting, and worth a read.

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7 Amy Hackworth May 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm

WOW, great article. Kind of makes me nervous for society…but full of such interesting and helpful stuff. Thanks so much, Raleigh-Elizabeth. I have a feeling you’ll be a really wonderful parent. :)

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8 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag May 13, 2013 at 10:46 am

Biting my tongue and wringing my hands right here along with you, Amy. Such a helpless feeling. I think it’s one of the hardest things about parenting, watching them get hurt, at times, by the outside world. At least I can be a safe haven.

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9 Amy Hackworth May 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Thanks, Melissa. Glad to know I’m not alone! :)

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10 Leah May 13, 2013 at 11:27 am

Thank you for your insightful article. Parenting is tough and I am certainly a work in progress! I don’t know the answers to your questions, but I am glad we are discussing parenting. The best part of this article and other articles about Tiger moms, attachment parenting, Tiger Mom Strikes Back ( a new one) and more is that we are learning, discussing and being more conscious about how we are parent. This makes us better parents and our children are luckily reaping the rewards.

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11 Amy Hackworth May 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I agree. I love this space to explore parenting. We have so much power, and really are shaping society (yikes). I love what we can learn from and share with each other.

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12 Michelle May 13, 2013 at 11:31 am

I have been reading a great book – Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. It is very interesting. The book claims “super parent” are enablers that “rescue” children from “their inadequacies by compensating for them, stepping in and deferring consequences for their children’s chosen behavior.” This “deprives them of the ingredients for self-reliance.” When we rescue “we tell them they are incapable of taking care of their lives” . . . “we enable them to remain vulnerable and easily manipulated.”
That is a lot to think about. I hope I’m not trying to keep my kids vulnerable. This book has made me think twice about helicoptering. I recommend it to all parents.

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13 Amy Hackworth May 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Wow, sounds like a great book. Thanks for the suggestion, Michelle. Those are some really powerful quotations you shared!

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14 cathy May 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm

My daughter called last night to ask us how we felt about letting her go to Syria when she was 18. She is seeing a group of college students off to OMAN tomorrow and has been surprised by how many parents have called her about the trip. I explained that I was not going to be “one of those moms” and I felt with her maturity she should go. It is always a struggle to find the balance between letting your children have struggles and fixing life for them. I tend to go the letting them have struggles route because that is what my parents did and I survived.

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15 KatieB May 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I found myself literally hovering (helicopter-ing if you will) over my almost 2 year old at a birthday party recently. He was sitting with the other kids around a big table waiting for his 4 year old friend’s birthday cake. I looked around and noticed I was the only parent standing over her toddler. I tried to step away without anyone noticing, but my husband was getting quite a kick out of my epiphany.

It is so true that if we are thoughtful about our parenting actions that they are most likely to match our values.

But, damn, it is really hard to be thoughtful about the millions of parenting decisions we make on a daily basis.

I am trying meditation. But what usually works for me is to remember what my mom always says about teaching/being a parent…”They learn in spite of us…not because of us.”

I always tell myself that my kids are most likely to turn out like me and my husband, so if we are our best versions of ourselves most of the time we’re doing good.

And when all else fails, I hover…

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16 Jenny P May 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm

As a high school teacher in a well-to-do school district, I see helicopter parenting on a daily basis. Parents of 17-year-olds asking for homework schedules, deadline extensions, copies of class notes, etc. It’s mind-boggling and I see how absolutely CRIPPLING it is to their children. As a parent (albeit of a 2-year-old), I also see that all that hovering comes from the most primal and loving place, so I sympathize, but still remind myself not to go there.

While celebrating Mother’s Day with my husband’s family this past weekend, I was amazed at how much “interfering” the parents did. “Stop running! Watch out! Don’t roll around! Watch that bat! Don’t throw that ball so hard!” Yikes. My husband and I are trying our hardest to just let our son play and not jump in unless he’s going to literally get kicked in the head (As Angela mentioned above). It’s tougher than I thought!

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17 Barchbo May 14, 2013 at 8:52 am

I am a former high school teacher and CRIPPLING is the word I use also to describe many of the parents’ behavior. I still work with children on a daily basis and I am still surprised by the hovering at the teenage/college level.

As a first-time parent in my forties, it was a really helpful experience to have figured out a lot by practicing boundary-making with other people’s kids.

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18 Martha May 13, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I don’t know what it is in my nature but I tend to have a really easy time letting natural consequences happen to my children. I will point them out and warn them but I am okay with letting them push the bounds a little, not to the point of really getting hurt but getting a little hurt every now and then I feel is good for them. My husband thinks I don’t react enough. I try to be involved without being overbearing (not an easy thing). One day I was in my sons kindergarten class helping his teacher and as the kids were sitting on their spots my son kept talking to the girl next to him and bugging her. I motioned for him to be quiet. He kept it up. The girl hit him. Not hard, just enough to get him to stop. Inside I was chuckling. The teacher saw what happened and looked at me to see my response, which externally was nearly nothing. To this day I question if she thinks I am an awful mom for letting him get hit and not going to his aid. I think I have the opposite problem Amy.

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19 Chrissy May 21, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Me too…I also have no problem saying no to them. I wonder why, sometimes, when so many of my friends fret over every little thing…I am pretty nonchalant about most things. I figure it is my job as Mama to create the surroundings of how their dad and I act, our expectations, require chores and kindness and cook good food and send them outside all the time and fill the shelves with books and blocks and always, always listen….but making life easy or worrying about every hurt feeling or intervening from the sidelines…nah. It seems…forced and awkward. It is harder with our oldest…he has dyslexia and ADHD-like attention stuff to contend with. I do want to figure out ways to guide him a lot…due to his lack if initiative in many areas…so I am often battling between my natural parenting style and trying to nudge him into getting things done, learning new things, trying harder when he wants to give up…blah, blah, blah. Always a juggling act, this Mama gig.

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20 Heidi May 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Like most things in parenting, I think that there is a balance. Our approach has always been, “this is your problem, and you need to solve it, and we will support you and help you and make suggestions if you would like us to”. At least on a good day! Sometimes I wish I had never said this, because now (oldest is 17) the response is usually ” this is my problem, and I’ll solve it, and I’ll let you know if I need any help” and then when they don’t need help, I’m longing for the days when my help was needed!

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21 Mrs. LIAYF May 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm

My husband and I became first time parents when I was 35 and he was 40. We adored our son – and we likely hovered a bit more than was necessary. Because he was our only child for 5 1/2 years, I think we pushed the physical assistance with dressing, eating, brushing teeth etc. longer than other parents. I also worried about his tendency to want make friends with everyone, and to have hurt feelings when they didn’t reciprocate in such an enthusiastic way (he’s so like me). I wanted to fix things for him and internally agonized when I could not. We snuggled A LOT and I noticed that he was more of a snuggler than other kids his age, and sometimes I worried that the apronstrings were too tight.

But, I think our kids do well despite us. 6 months ago we adopted an newborn girl. Our son immediately fell in love. And, he snuggles her, and kisses her, and loves her every day. He is quick to defend her as his “real sister,” not his “adopted sister,” and he has grown by leaps and bounds in his ability to do things independently that previously did for him because he is the older brother. So, all my worrying that he was too sensitive was for naught – it helped him to be a kinder, more understanding sibling. And, when we didn’t have the time to do everything for him, he began to do it for himself – no fuss no muss.

The proof that things are going smoothly for our ultra-sweet boy – he is in the middle of a mid-year transfer to another school and has navigated a new teacher, new classmates, and new rules. He has made friends galore. And, he even got in trouble and was sent to the principal’s office – for knocking down a bigger boy who grabbed a little girl on the playground and wouldn’t let her go. He’s figured himself out all on his own . . . because I no longer have time to hover. And, I realize that he was already a pretty good kid without my help. :)

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22 Cabbage May 15, 2013 at 9:01 am

When I started raising kids in Japan, I thought that I was surrounded by a bunch of zealous helicopter moms, and backed away from that. Careful observation taught me that there are different kinds of intervention. Japanese moms will hover around their kids all the time (I was the only one on the playground who sat on the bench), but they yelled out things like, “No, you have to wait for your turn on the slide!” “Watch out for the baby next to the swings!” “Don’t jump there; it’s not safe [for the other kids].” And yet, kids play around the neighborhood by themselves at 5 or 6-years old, and high schoolers come home around midnight often.
So, we all have our own standards, and sometimes I still think that it’s silly Japanese kids don’t know how to climb trees. But it’s equally ridiculous that American kids won’t pick up bugs, and don’t know how to ride public transportation.

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23 Mrs. Plank May 16, 2013 at 10:32 am

I’m 32. I have a 4 yr daughter and a 9 yr stepson. I volunteer locally with my old sorority chapter. Weekly, I’m amazed at how these bright, intelligent young women are fairly clueless at how to tackle very common sense tasks. Their parents (some of them hundreds of miles away) are ready with a phone call or an email about something their young ADULT child needs help with. I see zero benefit with this type of parenting. All of my friends with young kids agree. It makes us sad for their generation. Just my opinion :)

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24 Chrissy May 21, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Yes…I know some of those young adults. It is possible to turn your love for a child into the thing that smothers them and impedes their growth. The strongest, most sensible and dependable college kid we know was essentially abandoned by his parents as a young child and was raised at different times by several different people, but always treated as a burden. By the age of fourteen he was working year round, buying all of his clothes, shoes, books and supplies for school, any fun thing he wanted to do and has been fully independent since the age of seventeen. All of this to say…a child is more capable than Americans allow them to be. We extend their childhood…and then they are adults but don’t know anything about life. That young man inspires me for raising my sons to be strong, independent men.

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25 Elissa May 22, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Definitely worth looking at Lenore Skazy and Free Range Kids. I think the evidence, and my experience, support her opinion: that helicopter parenting is hurting not only the kids, but detrimental to our mindset as a society. http://www.freerangekids.com/

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