Helicopter Parents

By Lana Button on May 06, 2008
My 14-year-old tries to sneak out of the house without her cell phone. “Mom you call me, like, 16 times a day!” she complains. Am I a helicopter mom? Am I one of those moms who constantly hovers, ready to swoop down at the first whiff of trouble? I swore I’d never be, because I grew up with a helicopter parent.My dad tracked my every move. I couldn’t go to sleepovers (could be a fire) or travel to sports meets (potential car accident). I admit I survived my small town childhood, but at 18, I was naïve and unprepared for university life in Montreal and nearly drowned in my freedom.

So why do I call my daughter every 20 minutes when she’s out of my sight? (And I have to admit, I’ve said no to more than one sleepover.) Like many parents, I’m in a panic to keep my three daughters safe; I’ve bought into the message that a good parent is fiercely attentive to every detail of a child’s life.

I’m certainly not alone. Sarah Parker, mom of now 16-year-old Alexis, admits she bought a house beside her daughter’s elementary school in order to keep track of her. She went a step further and dressed her in neon-bright coats so she could easily spot her from the window. Parker had lived through bad experiences and was determined to shield her daughter from similar harm. She says staying within arm’s reach protected her daughter. “Alexis hardly fell without being caught before she hit the ground. It was exhausting.”

Alvin Rosenfeld, MD and Nicole Wise warn in their book, The Over-Scheduled Child, Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, that although helicopter parenting is rooted in our deep love for our children, constant hovering can make life more difficult and stressful for everyone and less enjoyable for the child.

Parker soon met her match in Deborah Stevenson. When Stevenson brought her daughter Deirdre to Parker’s home for a sleepover, she also brought fresh batteries for Parker’s smoke detector and questioned each parent about their child’s vaccinations. She accompanied every school trip, invited herself to children’s parties and forced Deirdre to play violin when she’d rather play soccer (deemed too dangerous, of course). Witnessingthis behaviour snapped Parker out of her constant ‘coptering’. She watched Deirdre suffer socially and admits she and other mothers stopped inviting Deirdre to avoid her mother’s third degree.

Damaging effects of Helicopter Parenting

Children reared by helicopter parents often lack self-sufficiency. Educators say these young adults enter post-secondary schools lacking life skills such as selfreliance, sharing and conflict resolution.

These children also suffer academically, because they are accustomed to being spoon-fed when it comes to their studies, and can’t stand on their own academic feet when asked to think critically and analytically.

This doesn’t surprise Lisa Clarke who teaches Grade 12 biology in Mississauga, Ontario. She’s had parents boldly ask for more home assignments and less classroom testing, and then, obviously, they complete their child’s projects and assignments for them. These parents complain to the principal if their child receives an unacceptable mark. Lisa has felt pressure from a principal to ease up on marking to appease parents, and has seen persistent parents succeed in having their child’s mark changed. Obviously that child will have trouble cutting it
when he goes it alone in university. Helicopter parenting blocks a child from experiencing pride at individual accomplishments say Rosenfeld and Wise. Kids get the message that without constant help they’ll never be able to take care of themselves.

Rosenfeld and Wise say sheltering our children from all discomfort, unhappiness or disappointment is humanly impossible and ultimately counterproductive, because these carefully shielded children enter the real world without the tools to deal with life’s ups and downs.

Are We Talking or Tracking?

Just how tight have those electronic apron strings become? Today’s typical cell phone greeting isn’t, “How are you?” but, “Where are you?” In the U.S., some cell phone services allow parents to track their kids with GPS (Global Positioning System) and to monitor their instant messages. Email warnings alert parents if their son is late for soccer or strays outside a designated boundary. (Bladerunner sells a GPS-lined children’s jacket for $500. And for $20 a month parents can monitor their child’s every move.)

Rosenfeld and Wise warn that constant monitoring keeps children from developing adaptability and forming any street sense.

Quiz

Are you a helicopter parent? Take this quiz to find out.

Your child is preparing for a playdate at a new friend’s house. Do you…
a) Pack your child’s backpack with some toys they’d love to share, and give her instructions to thank the other mommy for having her over?
b) Order a background check? (From what you’ve seen while driving slowly past their home every night, apparently they watch Reality TV.)
c) Not care? You’re not sure who these people are, but at least you’ll have time for yourself while the kid’s gone.

It’s your parent-teacher interview. Do you…
a) Make a list of questions to discuss so you can hopefully understand why your child’s teacher gave him a poor mark in science?
b) Come prepared for battle? This teacher completely misread your child. You want to get to the bottom of why the mark was so low and demand a better grade.
c) Why bother? It’s not as if grades matter that much yet.

Your child is signed up for soccer! Do you…
a) Co-ordinate with other parents to take turns at bringing snacks? Make sure either you or your spouse can be there for games (and ask Grandma and Grandpa to come, too).
b) Say no? Soccer? Are you kidding me? You know kids get kicked in the shins in that game? My child is only playing if I can find enough bubble wrap!
c) Ask your child to find a ride with one of the other players? You aren’t really into soccer.

A child at school called your child a hurtful name. Do you…
a) Console your child, and work with him to find a simple, effective way to deal with the problem?
b) Call the school immediately and demand the expulsion of the child? You plan your day around monitoring the schoolyard to see this never happens. A quick call to the other parent is in order, too.
c) Think that it’s not that big of a deal? Your kid should just call the other kid a nasty name back.

So, are you hovering close to being a helicopter parent?
If you answered mostly A, you’re well grounded. You might have the occasional wish to overprotect your child, but that’s okay. Keep up the good work.
If you answered mostly B, you better clear your flight pattern daily. Finding a way to let go is hard, but your children will benefit from your allowing them some independence.
If you answered mostly C, taking a few notes from the helicopter parents might be a good idea!

How to Land the Chopper

Parenting expert Barbara Colorosa says children need opportunities to be responsible to think for themselves.

Let your child practise being independent and self sufficient

Give kids responsibilities, like feeding a pet. Allow them to take responsibility for their own lives one tiny step at a time, like deciding when to do homework or practise an activity. Let go long enough to give them a chance. They might surprise you!

Stop doing stuff children can do themselves

Give them ownership over things like packing their backpacks and sports bags, making their beds, or lunches and doing their own school work. Be a terrific listener, be sympathetic when they experience disappointment and give advice when they are battling with a social dilemma. But stop phoning them! Don’t solve every social issue that comes up.

Let them see you enjoy life

Everyone in the family is entitled to a life. We sometimes martyr-manage our child’s life and end up ignoring or even sacrificing our other interests, friendships and even our marriage. It’s healthy for your child to see you taking time for yourself.

Let go in safe and productive ways

Sarah Parker also started letting go when Alexis began horseback riding. “There she was, this little girl, controlling this 1,000-pound animal and doing it well.” She still freaks when Alexis rides out of her vision, but fights the urge to pull out the binoculars. Says Parker, “If I can land the helicopter, there’s hope for future generations!”

By Lana Button| May 06, 2008

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