broader view

The truth is: We’re all helicopter parents

January 25, 2014
January 25, 2014

Crazy parents? I could tell you stories. I’ve spent the better part of a decade helping to run one of the oldest, most successful, most notorious online parenting communities in the country, Park Slope Parents.

Park Slope, Brooklyn is New York City’s baby-central. Nestled on the edge of Prospect Park, “The Slope” is one of the most kid-friendly neighborhoods in the city. Here is a place with stroller traffic, where even the nicest restaurants keep a supply of high chairs. Here, helicopter parenting is, at least superficially, a way of life.

On the weekends it’s not unusual to find playgrounds choked with parents shadowing their kids, micromanaging disputes over sharing and directing their sandbox activities. Every very extreme parenting trend you’ve ever heard about is on display. Competitive preschool admissions? Check! Parenting coaches? Check! Elimination communication, specialized tutors, elaborately themed summer camps? Check, check, and check.

I’ve seen it all: thousand-dollar strollers to thousand-dollar stroller envy. A mom worried her nanny’s love of McDonald’s might taint the baby’s palate to a dad enraged that his “child-free” neighbors won’t stop playing the piano during nap time. It’s a litany of shame and lost perspectives.

Yet as bad as these examples are, the more time I spend as a parent and with other parents, the more I think that ritual condemnations of helicopter parenting only make things worse. The label just makes other parents more isolated and paranoid. We would do better to try to understand what drives parents to be the way they are. It’s only then that we can have a useful discussion about what to do about it. In that spirit, here are six of the most important things I’ve learned about helicopter parenting:

We are more invested in kids today

Everyone is quick to point out the problems of over-involved parents but few people ever stop to ask why now? Did an entire generation of parents suddenly wake up, not just neurotic but with the same neurosis?  Of course not, but one thing that has changed for parents today is the nature of marriage. Once upon time, our relationship with our partner was likely to be the most enduring of our lives. Raising children was an important chapter but just one part of Our Life Together. We expected that one day our kids would leave us to start lives of their own and we’d drive off into the sunset.

But if the past 30 years has taught us anything, it’s that marriages come and go. And it’s because of this that we are so  invested (and possibly over-invested)  in our relationship with our kids. Our bond with our kids is not  just an important relationship for us, it is THE important relationship because it might be the only one lasts.

My baby is myself

Are you gay? Straight? Vegetarian? Vegan? Are you a parent? Child-free? Blame the 60s for how you define yourself, and how you define your child. When the “personal is political” lifestyle becomes the single most important source of personal identity. This means that how our kids do is all about YOU. Even if you don’t want it to be, you will be judged. Might as well preempt it by getting stuck in. Besides, you’re really just helping your child, aren’t you?

Parents are always wrong

Being a parent would be a lot easier if we never had to leave the house. Stepping out into public with a young child is like running an endless gauntlet. Say your son has a tantrum on a street, in a restaurant, on an airplane. You have limited options and none of them good. You can try to be calm and reason with your child, in which case you will be judged ineffectual. You can refuse to give in or ignore him, in which case you will be judged callous. Yell and it’s abuse. Bribe, and you’re a pushover destined for more of the same. Spank your child and someone will call the police. If you live in Park Slope, you may be fodder for a snarky blog. Yes, it sometimes works the other way when your child behaves well and you garner compliments. But it’s cold comfort when you realize you have no control at all.

You are on your own

Parents are almost systematically isolated from other adults—and often it’s our own fault. We sneer at our in-laws’ suggestions because their experiences of raising kids are hopelessly out-of-date. And any adult who attempts to help you curb a rioting child in public is walking on egg shells. It’s one thing if you yell at your child to stop emptying the sugar packets on to the table at the diner, but if a stranger tells her to “cut it out,” them’s fightin’ words. Instead of showing kids a united front with other adults, we show them that not only can they ignore you, they can ignore everyone else as well.

Everyone is a helicopter parent (except you)

It’s easy to lose perspective. Thank goodness there are plenty of other parents who are worse than we are. It’s fun to poke fun at helicopter parents. The hard truth: There’s a little helicopter in all of us. No, we’re not all Amy Chua, but when all parents become “advocates’ for their child—in whatever form that takes—it’s creates a new norm. And suddenly there are more adults in the sandbox than kids.

Bad news and good news

Yes, there is a big downside to over-involved parenting. When parents are too involved their children will find it harder to cope with adversity on their own. Over-praised for little things, kids don’t learn the value of hard work or the difference between praise and real earned achievement. They may fail to launch, meaning they will take longer to find their place in the adult world. Yes, it would be better if parents learned to step back sooner rather than later. But that’s not the whole story.

Fortunately, children are not merely the passive vehicles for parental attention. Independence may happen later, it may be more painful, but it is still entirely possible for young people to stand on their own two feet and to flourish. I’ve seen it happen.

Is there anything we can do about over-involved parenting? Parents and nonparents can support parents by not second guessing their decisions in public and by offering to help in whatever way they want us to. We can buck the trends in raising our own kids. We can get out of the sandbox and encourage our friends to do the same. We can cultivate more adult friendships and independent interests so that children don’t become our sole focus. We can listen to the advice and insights of our loved ones. We may not agree with everything they but the truth is, they’re often know what they’re talking about. Finally, we can scrap the term “helicopter parent” and let people get on with raising their kids in peace.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com. 

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