With the school year well under way, helicopter parents are spinning into overdrive, hovering over their children and micro-managing their lives. But where did it come from, this belief that good parenting is synonymous with doing everything for one’s child? What makes so many otherwise sane and rational parents believe they need to confront a “mean” teacher to demand a better grade for their child? To rally against school bans on the cell phone they gave their kid so they could keep in touch throughout the day? To fill up a child’s schedule with piano lessons, soccer, football, Scouts, and additional tutoring, then spend their evenings chauffeuring them to each?
Part of it no doubt stems from the constant awareness that other parents are watching — and closely. Ever since Hillary Clinton bellowed “it takes a village to raise a child,” well-meaning parents have bought into the notion that they aren’t simply responsible for looking out for their own children’s well-being, but for that of others’ kids, too.
Did Johnny’s friend show up for a sleepover hungry and wearing dirty clothes? Perhaps it would be best to grill him ask if his parents are having marital or substance abuse problems that stand in their way of providing for their child. (Because surely it couldn’t be that the boy’s mother served salad for dinner, which he refused to eat, and objected to washing a special load of clothes after her son forgot to bring his hamper to the laundry room.) Why does Lakeisha have a cast on her arm so soon after getting off crutches from her sprained ankle? Sure, Lakeisha swears both injuries are from her Saturday soccer games, but perhaps someone ought to ask Child Services to look in on the family “just to be safe.”
Ever aware that someone else might be looking at one’s own kids and jumping to the worst possible conclusion, many parents have grown accustomed to thinking of child-rearing as a public performance. A parent who shrugs her shoulders when her child comes home with an F on a math exam — when he’s clearly capable of doing so much better — must not care , or so an outside observer might conclude. Even if Mom knows Joey was playing video games in his room when he should have been studying, and that living with an F is a good way for him to learn about the consequences of bad choices, she still worries what other people will think . Why deal with that kind of condemnation, or expose Joey to it, when it’s so easy to demand a retest and assume Joey learned his lesson already.
Part of the blame also lies with the school system. For years we’ve been hearing about the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education. Even the National Education Association urges parents to be involved not only in homework but within the classroom. After a decade of bombardment with statistics about kids falling through the cracks due to teacher shortages and crowded classrooms, good parenting has come to require ensuring one’s own child doesn’t get left behind. So is it truly that surprising when a parent, hearing that some involvement is good, assumes more involvement must be better?
The problem is that helicopter parenting takes the very best intentions and twists them until the focus isn’t about the child at all: it’s about the parent. How involved they are, how much they do, how there they are for their kids. That type of hyper-parenting is the antithesis of neglect, but that doesn’t mean it’s any better.
Helicoptered kids know if they forget to tell Mom they’re running low on lunch money it doesn’t matter: Mom will drop what she’s doing, leave work if necessary, and bring them not only a check for tomorrow’s lunch but a hot meal for today, too. If they have a fundraiser for their school’s Homecoming that might drag them away from a video game it’s no big deal: Dad will gladly hit up everyone in his office to buy whatever crap the school is selling. The kid’s team lost the soccer championship? No problem: Helicopter Parents will have a trophy made up especially for their child just to reward him for having played. When it rains in the spring or snows in the winter — heck, even when the temperatures climb — helicopter parents are there to drive to or from school so their kids never have to feel a raindrop, snowflake, or prickly rash.
Meanwhile, woe to the teacher who sends a helicopter parent’s kid to the principal’s office. That’s when the manicured claws come out and the Chanel red lips pull back to reveal brilliant white and very sharp teeth. Helicopter parents refuse to believe their kid can do anything wrong. Why, it must be the teacher’s fault. Haven’t we all been hearing about substandard, burnt-out teachers who’d rather send an intelligent, curious kid to the office than actually spend time answering questions?
“And, by the way,” the parent will tell the principal, “there’s no way Jimmy called his teacher that word. Why, he doesn’t even know what it means!” They can say this with a straight face, mind you, because helicopter parents never let their children out of their sight and can’t possibly imagine Jimmy might be listening to R.A. The Rugged Man on his iPod.
The sad fact is that, while Helicopter Parents are busy assuring themselves and everyone else that they’re the most important person in their kid’s life, they’re overlooking the whole point of parenting: to raise children who’ll become responsible, productive adults.
Rather than allowing their child to develop problem-solving skills, they ensure their kid never once encounters a problem. Instead of helping their son learn to work hard for his allowance and save up for the things he wants, a helicopter parent will shower their scion with name brand clothing, the latest electronics, and expensive video games to prove they want only the best for their boy. They badger teachers into raising B+s to A-s, then boast about how their daughter made Honor Roll. They skip nights out together to take their kid to SAT prep classes, then fill out college applications for him, even going so far as to write admission essays (which, really, is a cinch after all those years doing the kid’s science projects).
Even after Johnny or Janie goes off to college — which the helicopter parent repeatedly called to plead for admission — they’re still not willing to give up their role. More than a few college administrators have stories about parents who spend the first week of college on campus taking tours, attending receptions, and making sure Johnny is getting along with his new dorm roommate. Faced with the fact that helicopter parents are not going to take a hint and go away, some colleges have even gone so far as to publish guidelines to help parents wean themselves from their offspring.
See, it’s not the kids who are afraid of striking out and establishing their own identity, it’s the parents who are afraid of what will happen to their kids when they do just that. Having spent the past 18 years treating their kids as flesh-and-blood Second Life avatars whose successes somehow prove to everyone what a good parent they are, helicopter parents secretly realize their kids have no clue what they’re doing. Nor do the parents anymore, now that their kids are no longer the center of their flight pattern.
So while this annoying phenomenon might very well stem from a misguided desire to be a good parent — and even though it was invited, if not actively encouraged by schools to begin with — the reality is that it backfires. Having never been allowed to experience the learning process which is the basis of childhood, helicoptered children wind up facing a harsh future as adults who — for the first time in their lives — don’t have Mommy or Daddy around to bail them out of day-to-day problems (though most likely a helicopter parent will readily make bail if need be).
And as for the parents whose lives have, for 18 years, drawn meaning solely from doing everything possible for their kids? Their helicopters become rudderless, and all too late they realize they not only missed out on enjoying their kid’s childhood, but that their kid missed out on it, too.