I have spent time as a high school PE teacher, athletic trainer, friend, and now counselor to some of the most interesting adolescents on the planet. I am fascinated by how our childhood experiences shape us, and particularly how parents’ actions and expectations have a tremendous influence on the outcome of children. As a society, we invest a lot of time and energy protecting children from parents who are not involved enough (and rightly so), but there is potential damage done on the other end of that spectrum as well. In 1990, child development researchers noted a shift in parenting styles. Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term “helicopter parent” to refer to a parent who hovers over a child in a way that runs counter to the parent’s responsibility to raise a child to independence.
I recently stumbled upon Julie Lythcott-Haims’ Ted Talk. It was insightful to hear how things can go wrong by holding too tight but also what it takes to raise wonderfully successful people. She proposes that by loading kids with high expectations and micro-managing their lives at every turn, parents aren’t helping. In other words, it’s hard to grow and develop naturally with a helicopter parent hovering above.
Are you raising your child with a “check-listed childhood?”
Do you believe that your child cannot be successful without the constant protection, prodding, and supervision of their parent? You might be a helicopter parent. The checklist often looks a little like this: keep them safe, fed, watered, in the right schools, in the right classes, with the best grades, involved in every activity, and experience leadership skills, athletics, and awards. All of this is for the opportunity to end up in the best college with the ultimate goal of being the most successful adult.
The dangers of helicopter parenting:
Children end up being “brittle and burned out”
What is the first question asked at the end of the day? “What did you make on your math test?” instead of, “How was your day?” communicates that the test score is more important than the child. Children begin to believe that their value and worth depend upon their performance. By addressing the child first, their worth develops by knowing they are valued and loved unconditionally.
Throughout high school, they keep performing. They try to make sure they have done everything to the standard of perfection set forth by their parents. Deep inside, they are seeking approval and praise. They develop unhealthy patterns leading to exhaustion. They often finish high school struggling under a mound of anxiety and depression wondering if they are “enough.”
Children end up lacking self-efficacy
Parents often dream of raising a perfectly successful young person. It is easy to excuse responsibility around the house for involvement in an activity or finishing homework. Once that child gets to college or in the workplace, they might struggle to understand that their actions lead to outcomes. This can erode interpersonal effectiveness. Allowing a child to live without responsibilities within their home hinders the development of their sense of community and teamwork.
What can or should we do?
- Give children chores – The Harvard Grant Study (the longest longitudinal study done on humans) says that having chores and beginning them early leads to professional success. This instills the mindset of “there are unpleasant tasks to be done…I may as well do it! Also, it promotes the idea of collaboration or “my effort affects the betterment of the whole.”
- Love them unconditionally – Another finding is that happiness comes from love and connection with others. To give and receive love, one must first love themselves. Learning to love themselves comes from having unconditional and non-judgmental love shown to them. It is not based on performance or accolades. We may have to set aside our egos and agendas so we can accept our children for who they are instead of what we want them to become.
- Allow them to become themselves – There is a difference between shaping children and providing opportunities. Research reminds us that the formative years are much richer when the child feels loved and given give responsibilities. Walking beside them with genuine encouragement helps develop their self-confidence.
This seems simple enough: give children responsibility, love them and let them be themselves. However, this mindset is a big shift from, the “the best colleges and the highest scores will lead to success” mentality.
If you can identify with being a helicopter parent and find that you are struggling to let go as a parent, or you recognize that your child is struggling with anxiety due to pressure (either real or perceived) from you, we recommend that you schedule an appointment with one of our therapists who specialize in helping adolescents and parents.