25 Oct Helicopter Parents
The term “helicopter parent” was first used in 1969 in the book “Parents & Teenagers” by Dr. Haim Ginott. Ginott used the term to described parents who are controlling and overprotective, typically taking too much responsibility for their children’s successes or failures; hovering over them like a helicopter. The term is so commonly used it became a dictionary entry in 2011. Classroom teachers, school leaders and sports coaches all over the world are bemoaning the rise of helicopter parents. They intuitively know that if Johnny or Susie gets in trouble, doesn’t make the team, or fails the test, the helicopter will take off and head their way!
Who is a helicopter parent?
I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post, written by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Dean at the prestigious Stamford College in the USA. Her work on Parenting is interesting and controversial, as she challenges parents to “loosen their grip” by allowing children to learn by failing and making mistakes.
In her work with first – year university students, Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade as Dean at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of surviving the rigours of university and were virtually unable to take care of themselves.
At the same time, Lythcott-Haims noticed that parents were becoming more and more involved in their children’s lives. They seemed to “swoop in” to personally intervene whenever something difficult happened. From her former position at one of the world’s most prestigious colleges, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children; ironically by trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working diligently protecting them from disappointment, failure and hardship.
She coined the term “over-helping” or “over-parenting” to describe this parenting style. Lythcott-Haims suggested that whilst over-helping might assist children in developing impressive résumés for college admission, it robs them of the chance to learn who they are, how to cope with hardship and failure, and how to navigate the world.
“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But, over-helping causes harm. It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life,” Lythcott-Haims wrote.
Lythcott-Haims is one of a growing number of writers who are urging stressed-out “helicopter” parents to breathe and loosen their grip on their children. “Don’t call me a parenting expert,” Lythcott-Haims said in an interview. “I’m interested in humans’ thriving, and it turns out that over-parenting is getting in the way of that.”
Lythcott-Haims cites a range of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental health problems among our young people. Her profile has given her the opportunity to speak at school auditoriums and to parent groups where she explains how and why helicopter parents are making themselves, and their children, miserable.
“Our job as a parent is to put ourselves out of a job,” Lythcott-Haims said. “We need to know that our children have the wherewithal to get up in the morning and take care of themselves.”
So are you a helicopter parent? Here are some of Lythcott-Haims’s tests:
- Check your language.“If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter — as in, “We’re on the soccer team” — it’s a hint to you are intertwined in a way that may not be healthy.”
- Examine your interactions with adults in your child’s life.“If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you are too invested,” she said. “When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves or to be resilient.”
- Stop doing their homework.Enough said.
And how can parents help their children become self-sufficient? Lythcott-Haims suggests it is about teaching them the skills they’ll need in real life and giving them enough leash to practice those skills on their own. And have them do chores! “Chores build a sense of accountability. They build life skills and a work ethic,” she said.
Lythcott-Haims said many parents are caught up in the university equivalent of an “arms race”. In our Australian context this is about making sure our children gain the highest possible ATAR and thus entry into the “best courses” in the “best universities”. Lythcott-Haims suggests that placing such expectations on our children is incredibly disabling and damaging. Rewarding effort and persistence is the key. Focussing on these positive character attributes is much better than focussing on the end result, which Lythcott-Haims says leaves them war-wounded and discouraged.
We all want what is best for our children and therefore we do what we can to help them. Let’s all think very carefully about the point at which our “help” becomes a “hindrance”.
It may be time to leave the helicopter in the hangar!