Dr. Gellner: We hear the term all the time, helicopter parent. But what does that mean and is it a good thing to be one? We'll tackle that conversation today. I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner on The Scope.
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Dr. Gellner: The term helicopter parent was first used in a book in1969 called Parents and Teenagers, which is by teens that said their parents seem to hover over them like a helicopter. The term became popular enough that it actually became a dictionary entry in 2011.
Helicopter parenting refers to a style of parents who are overly focused on their children. They typically take on too much responsibility for their children's experiences and specifically their successes or failures. It means being involved in your child's life in a way that is over controlling, over protecting and over perfecting. Although the term is most often applied to parents of high school or college age students who do the task a child is capable of doing alone, for instance calling a professor about a bad grade, or arranging a class schedule.
Helicopter parenting can apply at any age. A helicopter parent of a toddler might constantly shadow the child always playing with and directing their behavior allowing them zero time alone to explore and learn on their own. In elementary school helicopter parenting can be revealed through a parent ensuring a child has a certain teacher, selecting the child's friends and activities or providing too much help with homework and school projects, pretty much doing it for them.
So why do some parents become helicopter parents? Helicopter parenting can develop for a number of reasons. First, there's the fear of dire consequences. A low grade or not making a team can appear a disaster to a parent, especially if it appears that it could be avoided if the parents just got involved. Many of the consequences parents are trying to prevent such as unhappiness, not excelling and having to work hard to get that A are great for kids to learn and not actually life-threatening. It just feels that way to the parents and sometimes the child.
Next comes anxiety. Worries about things in general can push parents towards taking more control over their child's life in an attempt to protect them. Worry can drive parents to take control in the belief that they can keep their child from ever being hurt or disappointed. Then there are the adults trying to overcompensate. Those who felt unloved, neglected, or ignored as children can overcompensate with their own children. Excessive attention and monitoring are attempts to remedy a deficiency the parents felt in their own upbringing.
Finally, peer pressure from other parents. When parents see other involved parents it can trigger a similar response. We can easily feel that if we don't immerse ourselves into our children's lives we are bad parents. Guilt is a large component in this dynamic.
Social media overload contributes to this heightened competition. Parents are documenting every milestone reached by their kids excessively through Facebook and Instagram with many posts not actually imagining what's happening in real life. The result is that many of them are posting an impossibly pristine accomplished version of their family lives on the web, which makes other parents try harder to keep up with the Joneses.
But what about the consequences of helicopter parenting? Isn't being involved more a good thing? Well, many helicopter parents do start off with good intentions, but it's a tricky and fine line to be engaged with our children and their lives but not so enmeshed that we lose perspective on what they need from us as parents. Engaged parenting has many benefits for a child. Increased feelings of love and acceptance, helping to build self confidence, and providing guidance and opportunities to grow.
The problem is, once parenting becomes governed by fear and decisions are based on what might happen, it's hard to keep in mind all the things kids learn when we are not right next to them guiding them with each step. Failure and challenges teach kids new skills, and most important teach kids that they can handle failure and challenges.
Children of helicopter parents often express feelings of decreased confidence and self esteem. The main problem with helicopter parenting is that it backfires. The underlying message that the parents over involvement sense to the kids is that, "My parent doesn't trust me to do this on my own."
Children also have undeveloped coping skills. If a parent is always there to clean up a child's mess or prevent the problem in the first place. How does the child ever learn to cope with loss, disappointment, or failure? Studies have found that helicopter parenting can make children feel less competent in dealing with the stresses of their own lives. In fact a study from the University of Mary Washington has shown that over parenting is associated with higher levels of childhood anxiety and depression.
Children who have always had their social, academic and athletic lives adjusted by their parents to best fit their needs can become accustomed to always having their way and thus they develop a sense of entitlement.
Finally, these kids have undeveloped life skills. Parents who always tie shoes, clear plates, pack lunches, launder clothes and monitor school progress on a daily basis even after children are mentally and physically capable of doing the task prevent their children mastering these skills themselves.
So how can one avoid being a helicopter parent? How can a parent love and care for their children without inhibiting their ability to learn important life skills? As parents we have a very difficult job. No matter how much it hurts, parenting means letting children struggle. Allow them to be disappointed and when failure occurs help them work through it.
It means letting your children do tasks they are physically and mentally capable of doing. Making your 3 year olds bed isn't hovering, making your 13 year olds bed is. Perhaps it would be better to do what is called drone parenting by some. This allows parents to hover but instead follow and respond to their kid's interests as opposed to simply directing and over scheduling them.
There is some backlash against drone parenting, but it mainly stems from helicopter parents viewing the drone parents is allowing their child to much freedom. Arguing that a lack of structure or rule setting makes for older children and young adults who may be unable to follow rule sets and standards outside of the home.
How many of us have seen kids wearing dress up costumes or their pajamas while out and about in public with their parents? Do they have too much freedom or are they being supported for their creativity? As parents our job is to stay engaged with our kids, watch them, listen to them, learn from them. But we must also recognize the critical need for boundaries in order to best support their development.
Setting healthy boundaries with our children when done consistently, afford some of the opportunity to explore their individuality and question new ideas. It also provides us parents with useful information for measuring how well our kids respond to structure and how we might adjust the rope accordingly as they grow older and enter a society.
Setting boundaries with our kids is also a process. We get to work at it and it's okay to not be perfect, and its okay to sometimes hover a little. Regardless of where your parenting approach lies, seeking out other parents along the same bumpy path will help us and our children through it. It takes a village to raise a child. Thankfully in this modern era of social media there's no shortage of websites and posts to draw from as we work towards becoming more well-informed parents who truly want the best for our kids.
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