Parenting Adolescents — 08 June 2007
Are ‘Helicopter Parents’ helpful or harmful to their children?

All parents want to provide their children with the best care and facilitate their lives to the highest degree possible. These good intentions are sometimes so intense that they cease to be helpful and become intrusive and even harmful to the children.

In their book Millennials Go to College, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss termed ‘helicopter parenting’ as: “mothers and fathers who hover around their children at all times, ready to swoop in and help”.

The hands-on practice of helicopter parents begins with micromanaging the child’s life from the selection of the appropriate competitive preschool through college and even vocational and career selection. Children of these parents are carefully supervised and guided in their academic as well as their extra-curricular activities to meet their parents’ hopes for them. Often the youngsters appreciate the attention and involvement of their parents, are compliant and attempt to satisfy their elder’s agenda.

The difficulties some of these children encounter involve becoming their parents’ clones rather than grow to appreciate their own unique talents, skills, interests and choices. They are also so over-structured that their problem solving ability and autonomy are curtailed from an early age.

In a recent television interview with a college student of helicopter parents, the young man said: “I feel that my parents have known me all my life and they know best what I should study in college”. This extended dependence has stripped this young person of the opportunity to identify his own wishes for his life. A Newsweek article by Barbara Kantrowitz and Peg Tyre quotes Missa Murry Eaton, an assistant professor at Penn State University Shenango, and a parent-child relationships researcher, as saying that some parents think nothing of calling their freshman child in the morning to verify that he or she is up or call in the evening to make sure the student is studying.

This type of over-involvement is meddling, harmful and crippling. Jennifer Floren, CEO of experience.com, a web site that connects 3,800 universities with employers describe a new, even more alarming trend. She reports parental contact with college placement counselors questioning why their child did not receive an interview with a specific employer. She also reports that:” “They’re demanding passwords so they can get into the student’s account. It’s just bizarre.”

This excessive intrusion into the young adults’ lives is psychologically crippling. Children raised with little autonomy are prevented from exercising their judgment, making mistakes, learning and developing a healthy sense of competence and self-esteem. Being micromanaged and having all their ails remedied by their parents also causes children to believe that they are not competent to run their own lives.

Dr. Patricia Somers, an associate professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, found in her research “that helicoptering is not an exclusively middle- and upper-class phenomenon, as many assume. All income levels are represented to some extent, as well as both genders and every race and ethnicity”.

This relatively new phenomenon calls to question the fate of the youngsters raised by these parents and their capacity for managing their lives, relating well to others, selecting mates and being healthy parents. Future research will answer whether these young adults, who may lack initiative, competence and creativity can lead us into the future.

If you are an over-involved parent please consider:

• Your child is a unique individual who can best benefit from guidance, not micromanagement. Guidance means providing principles for behavior – not doing everything for the child.
• Make sure that you are not attempting to relive your life and recapture your unmet goals through your child.
• Children thrive with love and discipline. They benefit from venturing out and making their own mistakes and testing their capacities and strengths. When they are over-instructed they lose confidence in their own abilities.
• Self-esteem is initially derived from the parents’ definition of the child. Maturation depends upon developing self-knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses through personal experiences.
• Good parents guide their children toward autonomy, not life-long dependence on them.
Selecting your child’s career, college major or first employer, though well intended, is actually harmful and may cripple your child’s life.
Preventing your children from experiencing some disappointments, discomfort, rejections or failure, poorly prepares them for life.
• Your love for your child requires that you allow him/her to mature naturally away from you and toward self-sufficiency.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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