Helicopter Parenting

I Heard Helicopter Parenting Works. Does It?

Don't believe everything you read.

Ask Lenore Helicopter Parenting

The New York Times certainly knows its readers’ sweet spot. Check out this headline: “The Bad News about Helicopter Parenting: It Works.” I’ve spent years fighting against the need to be a helicopter parent, so of course I had to see what they were basing that headline on.

Their definition of “helicopter parenting” seems off.

The article seems to define helicopter parents as those who are neither total slackers, nor old-fashioned Father-knows-best-so-shut up-ers (so-called “authoritarian parents”). That leaves a lot of middle ground. It says, “Instead of strict obedience, [helicopter parents] emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence—skills that will help their offspring in future workplaces that we can’t even imagine yet.”

To me that sounds exactly like a lot of us who do not consider ourselves helicopter parents. As Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby, points out, “Free-Range Parenting does not mean being permissive. That’s a big misconception: it’s not about just letting kids do whatever they want. It’s about fostering independence and ultimately responsibility. For me, that means preparing them to take on new challenges and having consequences if they break rules.”

They measured success with test scores.

The New York Times based their piece on a book called Love, Money & Parenting by Mattias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti. Here’s the argument that supposedly proves helicopter parenting works:

…when [the authors]  analyzed the 2012 PISA, an academic test of 15-year-olds around the world, along with reports from the teenagers and their parents about how they interact, they found that an “intensive parenting style” correlated with higher scores on the test.

That’s the definition of success? Is a child who scores high on an academic test more successful, now and in the future, than a kid who likes building tree houses with her brother? And is asking kids if their parents have an “intensive style” the best way to measure helicoptering?

We have a lot of unanswered questions about all of this.

True helicopter parents don’t value independence.

Helicopter parents hover over kids, guiding and judging their every decision. They plan every minute of kids’ lives, making sure everything they do is for a purpose. I talked to a high school teacher from an affluent suburb where the catchphrase is, “Yale or Jail.” The teacher is hoping to figure out how to give younger kids less supervised time. They need time to just do what interests them, without someone coaching or grading them. “By high school,” she said, “it’s too late. Their anxiety is off the charts.”

Look, there’s enormous pressure on parents to “do it right.” We get that. Socioeconomic fears will always play a role in what we value and what we teach our kids. As The New York Times rightly points out, parents are afraid their kids will fall off the road to riches, or even the road to a decent job. If it takes helicopter parenting, the article seems to say, then that’s okay.

Successful adults need independent childhoods.

So many of the actual skills kids are going to need as functioning, open-minded adults are not the ones they get in adult-supervised, “resume-building” activities. When they’re just plain old playing, for instance, they’re learning compromise, leadership, focus, empathy. When they run an errand they’re learning responsibility, efficiency, problem-solving.

These skills will serve them well. They might even help get them into Harvard! Without independence, we are raising kids who are great on paper, but are possibly also quite anxious, lacking an internal locus of control. That’s the result of helicopter parenting.

At Let Grow, we are just trying to make it easy, normal (and legal) to give kids some freedom. You can still enroll them in lacrosse, you can still have them take SAT prep classes (we did!). But remembering that not every moment has to be oriented toward an external goal relaxes both generations and leads to some maturity.

Not to mention direction.

Not to mention joy.

Which some might even consider “success.”