As a parent to a high schooler, I’ve heard many horror stories about a new breed of children: kids who can’t manage their stress. It’s not just helicopter parents either; teachers, college professors and even employers have noticed. While the young adults applying for college and jobs are poised, polite and accomplished in terms of community service, grades and test scores, many lack resilience and even basic life skills.
In affluent cities and suburbs across the U.S., childhood has changed. Thirty years ago, hands-off parents didn’t call their children “Free Range,” because freedom was just a part of being a kid. Now, parents have sharply limited children’s freedom in the name of safety and have traded unstructured time for after school activities. The hovering “help” of so-called helicopter parenting may provide short-term rewards, but cost a child their independence in the long run.
Are YOU a helicopter parent?
A helicopter parent is defined as a parent who obsessively “hovers” around their kids in an overprotective manner. It is important to care for your child, but oftentimes helicopter children rely on their parents to swoop in and save them well into adulthood.
Helicopter parents don’t set out to harm their children. It’s because you want to help your children that you are often willing to do whatever it takes to help your kids succeed. But you also need a wake-up call about the accidental consequences of your actions.
Achievement vs. independence
The problem with helicopter children is that when it’s time to head out on their own and make their way in the world, they are ill-prepared. College graduates with impressive resumes arrive at new jobs so emotionally fragile that even minor problems need to be solved for them by other adults. If there’s one thing that shouldn’t happen, it’s your boss getting an angry call from your mom.
Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, talks about her own struggle as a helicopter parent. Eventually, she began to understand that her parenting success should not be defined by her own effort, but rather by her children’s earned competence. In chapters on sports, friendship and homework, Lahey advises parents on when to step in, and when to step back. Her advice? Expect more, nag less. More patience, less perfection. Step back, and kids will step up.
Lahey told me how she transformed her own household: “I became much more aware of my motives. I was doing a lot of stuff for my kids—solving their problems and saving them from themselves—that made me feel good in the moment, but undermined their education and development. I had to cut that out, and that’s been hard to do because it had become a habit, both for me and my kids.”
Our kids shouldn’t need us forever
As a middle school teacher, I hold high expectations for all students. But I define success as independence and self-motivation, rather than a slew of A’s. If the choice is between teeing students up for impressive achievement and letting them fail on their way to independence, I’m going to choose independence every time. However, as a parent, I’m not always so sure-footed. Deep down, I know I want to raise resilient, independent children. By setting up boundaries, rather than micromanaging them, I know they’ll be able master basic life skills all on their own.