Why You Shouldn’t Helicopter Parent (And What To Do Instead)

helicopter parenting

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t choke them, go here.

The phenomenon of helicopter parenting — hyper-involved moms and dads who chart their kids every movement and progression on a timeline starting at birth and ending at Harvard — has been around just long enough for the first wave of helicopter kids to actually arrive at Harvard (or Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc.) and the results are … not good. So says Julia Lythcott-Haims, who studies these kids in her new book, How to Raise An Adult: Break Free From The Overparenting Trap And Prepare Your Kid For Success.

Lythcott-Haims knows what she’s talking about; she’s Stanford’s former Dean Of Freshman and she’s raising her own kids in helicopter parenting’s Ground Zero: Palo Alto, CA. She’s seen firsthand the rise of a college generation that can get straight A’s but can’t figure out how to feed themselves or deal with their roommates, but the book doesn’t just detail all the ways these kids are sort of screwed. It also provides plenty of justification of your own slacker parenting styl … er … advice on how parents of young kids can avoid similar outcomes.

How To Raise An Adult

1. The Stakes

Helicopter Parenting Doesn’t Work

The book references a gang of studies that indicate the kids of helicopter parents struggle at the college level, but here are just a few of the scarier ones:

• A 2010 survey of 300 college freshman nationwide found “students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and actions and more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious.”

• A 2011 study out of the University Of Tennessee-Chattanooga found kids with helicopter parents were more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression.

A 2011 study found kids with helicopter parents were more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression.

• A 2007 study in the Journal Of Family Psychology (you don’t subscribe?) gave 18-25-year-olds a set of criteria defining “adult-ness,” including accepting responsibility for the consequences of actions; establishing adult relationships with parents, financial independence, and having beliefs or values independent of parents. Only 16 percent felt they were adults … and their parents agreed.

What You Can Do About This
• Read the rest of this summary, and then don’t helicopter parent.

2. Are You Hovering Too Much?

How To Raise An Adult

Flickr / Lambada

Your Kids Are Statistically Safer Than Ever

Seriously — Lythcott-Haims points to decreases in child abduction, but kids in the U.S. are also less likely to die, be killed, or get hit by a car than pretty much anytime in history.

What You Can Do With This
• Be glad that you live in the U.S. in 2015. Keeping your kid safe is in the first line of the parenting job description, but it helps to understand “danger” in terms of actual risk.

• Understand that constantly acting as “bumpers and guardrails” between your kid and the world ensures that they’re always going to need those bumpers and guardrails (which will get awkward when they’re adults).

• Think about the ways you were free or unencumbered as a kid that seem anachronistic today and give your own kid some similar boundaries or experiences.

Keeping your kid safe is in the first line of the parenting job description, but it helps to understand “danger” in terms of actual risk.

There’s Such A Thing As Too Many Opportunities

Contriving a rich mosaic of experiences in hopes of training kids for academic competition can create a “checklist childhood,” resulting in kids with underdeveloped imaginations who can’t learn in an organic way (which is ironic, given all the organic food they’re fed).

What You Can Do With This
• Have an antenna up for when you might be pushing toward activities that align more with your hopes for them than with their actual interests. While there are obviously times that this is necessary — if the kid can’t do math, then math tutoring is probably a good idea — make sure you’re striking a balance.

• Regardless of the activities your kid is scheduled for, make sure their days and weeks have time built in for unstructured play, exploration, and interacting with other kids without the interference of adults.

3. How To Ground The Helicopter

Todd Van Hoosear

Be Authoritative, Not Authoritarian

There are 4 major parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful. No one likes a dictator, “permissive” too often means “lazy,” and neglectful is just plain illegal. That’s why most child development experts agree that authoritative parenting provides the best balance of guidance, security, freedom.

What You Can Do With This
• Understand the difference between authoritarian parenting, which relies on “because I said so” rules-enforcement, and authoritative parenting, which explains rules with emotional warmth, encourages kids to make choices, and doesn’t punish failure.

There’s A Time, And A Way, To “Hover” Effectively

Lythcott-Haims cites a 2006 UCLA study, which found that kids whose parents finished tasks for them had more separation anxiety than their peers. But she also mentions a 2010 study out of UT Austin, which found hovering can be effective if it’s age appropriate and follows certain guidelines.

Most child development experts agree that authoritative parenting provides the best balance of guidance, security, freedom.

What You Can Do With This
• Make your kid responsible for elements of their own lives in a way that coincides with where they’re at, developmentally — i.e. cleaning up their toys, waking themselves up in the morning, preparing their own meals, etc.

• Assign them household chores and hold them accountable for their completion.

• Make sure they understand that failure is often a first step to success; help them overcome disappointment through support and encouragement.

• When your kids need help with something — chores, projects, homework, etc. — engage them in a dialogue about their challenges and empower them to act. Don’t intercede unless it’s clear that they need additional help.

4. Reclaim Your Own Life For The Benefit Of Your Kids

Helicopter Parenting Makes Parents Miserable

A 2012 report in the Journal Of Child And Family Studies (you don’t subscribe?) found that mothers with an “intensive parenting attitude” were more stressed and depressed than mothers who were more laissez-faire. The fact that the study was specific to women shouldn’t make helicopter dads feel any better about it.

Mothers with an “intensive parenting attitude” were more stressed and depressed than mothers who were more laissez-faire.

What You Can Do With This
• The aforementioned study found that the happier mothers “don’t think an arsenal of expertise was mandatory” to be a good parent. They’re right, so don’t worry if your own arsenal of expertise is heavy on outdated video game systems or fantasy sports — just figure out how to use that to your advantage.

You Have To Show Your Kid What A Normal Adult Looks Like

“A couple’s relationship may get put on the back burner when the kids are first born, and if over time it continues to be shunted aside as the kid’s lives take a higher priority, the relationship may wither,” Lythcott-Haims writes. “When this happens both the couple and the kids are impacted.” Her evidence for this is anecdotal, but you know this couple, so you know she’s right.

What You Can Do With This
• Follow your own passions so your kids learn to follow theirs. Don’t feel bad about occasionally saying no to things you hate, like field trips, bake sales, or PTA meetings.

• Prioritize your physical health so your kids do the same (also, so you don’t die).

• Make time for relationships with people who didn’t come out of your wife’s uterus; while you’re at it, make time for your wife.

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