For Back-to-School season, we’re taking a look at different parenting styles and philosophies. Last time we examined Purposeful Parenting. This time, we’re taking on the Helicopter Parent.
The definition of a helicopter parent (according to Google) is “a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.”
The words overprotective and excessive are not particularly complimentary, so it’s no surprise that so-called helicopter parents (named for the way they hover over their children’s every move) get a bad rap. But what does it really mean and why is it bad?
Judith Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, witnessed the trend of parents showing up at college with their kids, not simply to drop them off, but to take an active role in many aspects of their on-campus life. Lythcott-Haims observed that students became less independent as parents took more control. She writes that many of the students who showed up in her office were brilliant and accomplished, but were also fragile and miserable.
Lythcott-Haims’ concerns center on the premise that helicopter parents demand too much of their kids in terms of academics and too little in terms of life skills. Concerned that these 18-to-21-year-olds were not functioning as adults, the way students in that age group had in the past, she began researching the topic. She makes a compelling case for a connection between the rise of helicopter parenting and the increase in depression and anxiety among college students. (Lythcott-Haims, 2015)
So, are overinvolved parents raising a generation of adults who don’t know how to advocate for themselves, make decisions, or deal appropriately with setbacks?
Speaker and author Alfie Kohn says that reports of overzealous parents micromanaging their kids at college are exaggerated. (Strauss/Kohn, 2014) In his book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, Kohn states that the studies that show a correlation between hovering parents and unhappy kids are inconclusive. He offers two alternative explanations. One is that depressed, anxious kids may perceive their parents as more intrusive. The other is that parents who believe their child is depressed may be more likely to hover in response, rather than as the cause.
One study conducted with children (ranging in age from 19 to 41) and parents concluded that the young adults with parents who provided intense support experienced better outcomes, including higher life satisfaction and clearer goals. (Krauss Whitbourne, 2013).
The differing study results may depend on how the helicopter hovering actually manifests. In other words, some types of support and intervention are better than others.
Lori Gottlieb, therapist and author, wrote about her 20- and 30-something patients who claimed to have perfect childhoods and great relationships with their loving parents, but were, nevertheless, lost and unhappy. They “had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.” Part of the problem, Gottlieb concluded, is that in an effort to give kids everything they need to succeed, parents inadvertently made happiness the goal without allowing their kids to fully experience unhappiness. Now, as young adults, they don’t know how to manage disappointment. And since working through struggles is a big part of getting to happiness (rather than having it managed for you), the happiness they seek eludes them. (Gottlieb, 2011)
Next up: Free Range Parenting.