Parenting Month: Thou Shalt Not Hover

February 15, 2012

Today, I’m continuing my odyssey into parenting, and today, we’re exploring a very special kind of Mom and Dad.

Everyone knows the term “helicopter parent.”

Those are the Mommies and Daddies that hover around the baby birdies constantly.  They have a reputation for being…overprotective, to put it mildly.  They were first noticed by teachers several years ago, and their pervasive habit of making teachers’ jobs miserable with constant phone calls and conferences.  But people thought they would grow out of it when the kids turned 18 and went to college.

They didn’t.  The hovering parents followed their kids to college, calling up professors, making demands, and generally being a huge pain.  But it was okay, because everyone thought the parents would grow out of it when their kids graduated college and got jobs.

They didn’t.

Grab your blankies and read on.  Tell me if you think it’s time the helicopter parents finally grew up.

Never Never Land

NPR recently reported that the helicopter parents have not grown up.  Just like in elementary school, all the way up to college, parents are now following their kids into the workplace.  Yep.  Submitting resumes on behalf of kids, calling employers to demand more compensation for their precious kiddies, attending job interviews, and generally being a pain to human resource departments.

And much like the elementary teachers, soccer coaches, and resident assistants before them, employers are learning that fighting a helicopter parent is futile.  They will not leave.  They cannot be silenced.  Resisting them only creates an enemy you don’t want.  The Scandinavians call it “curling” parents, trying to sweep every obstacle out of their childrens’ way.

I Don’t Have to Grow Up

Maybe it’s because my brother and I were raised to be self sufficient adults, but I cannot imagine my parents following me to my workplace like that, much less my college, much less my high school.  I thought the goal was for kids to be able to take care of parents in their old age.  How can that ever happen if kids are never allowed to take care of themselves?  It’s bad enough that most people have to move back home after college, but this is pathetic.

And we wonder why so many kids have no initiative.  Why on earth should a young person ever learn to do anything when Mom or Dad will continue to do it?  Why move out of the house, submit resumes, fold laundry, cook dinner, or do anything remotely adult (including finding a date)?  Maybe that’s the whole idea.

The Family Safety Net

Helicopter parents are stuck in a cycle.  They don’t want their kids to fail or falter.  So they keep the safety net in place by hovering around, making sure things go smoothly.  It starts with parents helping their hapless tots at the Easter egg hunt.  Who hasn’t seen a parent saying, “Look to your right…no your other right.”  

As soon as a hovering parent steps back, the kid is likely to falter for a while.  It takes a while of bumbling around for kids to figure life out.  The problem, perhaps, is most helicopter parents can’t stand to watch their kids fumble and bumble as long as they need to in order to become independent.  So the safety net stays deployed forever, and kids continue to live protected, bubble-wrapped, babyproofed lives, supervised by Mom and Dad.

Employers are right to throw out resumes submitted by parents at job fairs.  It’s pathetic.  It shows that the kid has no initiative and probably could not care less about working for that company.

Part of becoming an adult is learning from mistakes.  If the grown up kids end up sticking their fingers in a light socket, or eating ramen noodles out of a frisbee every night, let them.  They’ll figure it out.

What do you think?  Is “hovering” good parenting, or do parents need to back off?  How do you know when it’s time to let a kid fend for themselves?

30 responses to Parenting Month: Thou Shalt Not Hover

  1. Hi Matt,

    As the father of six gown children (three sons and three daughters) I’ve noticed that as each year passes, I know less and less about parenting.

    I have no idea why or how our kids grew up to keep our of jail, be employed, pay taxes, or establish homes of their own. It’s a mystery to me.

    Grace of God, I guess.

    However, one thing that has worked for Ginny and me in the 43 years we’ve been married, is that from the word GO we4 regarded our children as a parenthesis in our life. We were together and in love before the first one; we’d be together and in love when the last one left home. They are passing through our life and marriage, we are not.

    And guess what? Our grown children are now our best friends in the world. Something worked… but as I admitted at the first, I don’t know for sure what.

    John Cowart

    • Holy cow, that is awesome – children as parentheses. Ive seen a lot of people who don’t do it that way, and of course, they don’t know what to do when the kids are gone. The kids are more of a period on the end of a sentence then parentheses.

  2. I think that beyond infancy, the helicopter parent doesn’t serve much purpose, except for themselves. Of course, I’m also not a parent, so I don’t know much. =)

  3. i don’t know about that…but my 4 year old is already cutting the grass, doing laundry and cleaning the house…

    ok…he does it with me. lol…so that by the time he is 5, he is good to go! lol…kidding, kidding, please don’t call child protective services…

    but, it’s not a far stretch that when my son and daughter are old enough…they will do all the chores mommy and daddy do…

    My little girl just turned 6…my wife got frustrated with her because she had to get her dressed in the morning for school for awhile now…

    the other day my wife was like “hell to da na!” (whitney RIP)…

    so she taught her once to comb her hair and how to pick out close to put on…

    we are lazy parents…so…kids gotta fend for themselves sometimes….

    what? you want a juice? GO GET IT! you can reach the fridge.

  4. I’m sure there are people that extreme out there, but they’re pretty rare. Following their child to job interviews when he’s 27? Nah.

    Like John, I also have six children and I parent each one of them a little differently. My nearly non-verbal autistic child? Yeah, maybe I will look like a helicopter parent to that one. My 18-year-old? Maybe I look like I don’t care with that one. He missed the school bus this morning and refused to wait until 9 am (I have another appointment) for his ride. He is walking six miles (!!) to school in the cold because he is stubborn. I figure if he wants to be treated like an adult that means I have to respect his decisions, even the foolish ones. :)

    I am also a chess parent. Do you know chess parents? My 10-y-o pushes HIMSELF and wants to be a chess master (as in, earn the title) but I’ve seen some horrific over-pushing from some parents. There was even a suicide at Nationals last year, but somehow? That has not been reported in the news. 15 is too young to die, though, esp. over a chess game.

    Whatever kind of parents we are, it’s important to let the child know things are going to be ok and that they are loved. :)

  5. I’ll remember this at the Easter egg hunt this year :0)

    My older daughter just turned three, so our task in self-sufficiency right now is dressing herself as much as she can and going potty without reminders or assistance. The hard part is that she’s still adjusting to a new baby in the house, and being “set adrift” in certain areas is even rougher when Baby Sister literally gets her butt wiped for her.

  6. As I mentioned Monday… give the kids a long enough leash so they learn to fail while you are still around to help them pick up the pieces. Then when you set them free, they don’t go quite so crazy their first year on their own.

    Look at how God parents us. He offers guidance, support, encouragement, boundaries… and we are free to make all the mistakes we want to. He’s the perfect parent, and look how we turned out!

  7. Yes I’ve heard of this! College counselors even have to train professors how to handle it and HR is getting trained too. Sometimes parents even show up to the interview.

    I think this is more of our culture not wanting to take any personal responsibility. Also, I think so many parents are insecure about their own success (because they don’t have Christ) that they think if they can ensure their kid’s success they can be secure. Of course, I’m not sure how you justify your kid needing help in a job interview as a success, but I digress.

    I love what my father-in-law said, “I raised my children to be arrows, not boomerangs”

  8. Read an article recently about the value of unsupervised play for children. Basically, it doesn’t exist anymore. You know what I’m talking about: kids joining up with the other kids in the neighborhood, and everyone going down to the creek to do something dangerous with no adults in sight. I have fond memories of such times as a child.

    Adults are so much more aware of all the potential pitfalls out there, that they keep their kids close at all times. The problem is that research suggests that the failures and then victories born out of those times away from adults can have the greatest impact on a chid’s self-esteem and social development.

    In a sense, no matter how many times a helicopter parent tells his child he’s amazing (typically for doing stuff that’s un-amazing), the kid won’t believe it until he successfully walks across a frozen pond with all of his friends watching.

    Triumphs are greatest when they come after many failures. With hover parents, kids are never given a chance to fail.

    • This is a big frustration for me. As a homeschooling mom, I want my kids to play with neighborhood kids. However, I never see kids outside playing, even in the afternoon. So I send them outside to play in our front yard or ride together around the neighborhood or walk the dogs together. I can’t quite bring myself to let them go to the park without me.

      I remember listening to a radio program on NPR (yes, I am THAT kind of Christian) where scientists had discovered how much kids were learning by playing. So they tried to set up learning play games. It kind of seemed like they missed the point :-).

  9. I guess that the entire “when they are 18” thing is not biblical. It says until they get married – you know, leaving your father and mother and cleaving to your hot new spouse. Parents are meant to be influential until that point; probably even farther.

    The second point is this, we are raising adults, not children, so we need to offer them opportunities to fail. My oldest daughter wanted to go to a college of HER choice. I wanted to support her. I looked up all the college stuff, took her to the interview (didn’t sit in it), helped here with her freshman FAF and got online and printed about 100 financial aid apps… she didn’t want to fill them out, so she ended up working for 2 years part-time, and has $50K in loans. Oh well.

    My little one wanted a puppy, so we had her clean up the poop in the backyard from the others for 3 months. She did it, and got a puppy for Christmas. She can’t watch TV if her homework isn’t done and the living room isn’t picked up. She sets the table, all part of being in a family.

    I do call the school when she comes home with homework she has no idea how to do. Her teacher this year is an airhead. I did write a letter to a college professor for the older one who taught evolution and global warming as science. (both are theories). I called a tech school of the other teen who wouldn’t help her with her FAF. It’s hard to watch them give up because some are people are actually stupid!

    The older girls had rules. In by 11 pm, no off color language or music, no boys, attend church once a month, pay $25 per week and a chore or two. Violations were a $20 fine and we shut the cable off to their rooms until it was paid (no cell, no TV, no PC). They were expected to be at the table at dinner time, or make their own.

    When it comes to safety, I check up on them. I used the GPS on the cell phones, and I would call them at 11 if they weren’t in to let them know I was locking the door. We had a text code for dates with boys and check-in times. We don’t let Charlotte (8) out of our site. Our town is not all that safe – IE: gun fights in the street, and people trying to break in. We check in to see how she is doing on the bus with the bus driver, and meet the caretakers at the Boys and Girls clubs. We know her teachers pretty well from school functions and meetings.

    We’d like to mind our business all together, but until they are married, I will check in as long as they will let me. We love when they come to visit, yet we’ve never been invited to their apartments.

    I won’t call my kid’s jobs ever. They are on their own. We let them live at home while they went to college or worked a total of 40 hours a week. At 22-years-old we raised the rent to $375 per month from $25 per week. We didn’t give them cars, or co-sign loans. We gave them each $500 for their first car, and they had to pay it back.

  10. I heard that NPR story and my first reaction was “WTF, do people like this actually exist?” Apparently they do. (Although, personally I couldn’t figure out why so many HR departments are actually caving in to this behavior. If I ran a company, I wouldn’t hire anyone whose parents were involved with the application process. End of story. What a great way for someone to demonstrate that they have no initiative whatsoever!)

    My sister (10 years my junior) was an RA in college and had to arrange the freshman orientation activities. She told me the biggest problem she had to deal with was being interrupted by kids talking on their cel phones all the time–to their MOMS! I love my mom and all, but she was the last person I thought to call during freshman orientation :)

  11. I am really curious about how this is going to affect our society in the coming years. Here’s what crossed my mind–

    —The whole “helicopter parent” phenomenon seems to be more of an upper/middle class problem. (You won’t find helicopter parents in the ghetto, I’m pretty sure.) Will that help or hinder lower class kids who are trying to get ahead? (Will a lower income kid do better in college because he’s, by necessity, had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, for example, or will he have a hard time competing with all the rich kids that have Mummy and Daddy doing all the hard stuff for them?)

    —Will there eventually be some backlash to this? Personally, I’m already kind of feeling like pushing back myself with my own kid. I work full time, so I don’t have the time to “hover” as much as other moms. I’m also trying to make a concious effort to make sure my kid doesn’t grow up to be a stereotypical overpriviledged “doctor’s kid”. My kid’s pretty young still, but I’ve already become a bit of an oddball because I’m not enrolling him in all kinds of “structured” activities.

    —Like you said, what’s going to happen to these types of parents when THEY need to be taken care of? It gets tough to fight all of Junior’s battles when you’re in a nursing home.

    —As I read your post, I can’t help but picture Wallowitz and his mom from “The Big Bang Theory”.

  12. As a college math professor I came across a helicopter parent (in my first quarter teaching). Luckily there was an experienced undergraduate adviser in the math office who was able to help me deal with it. I basically just ignored the mother and dealt only with the student. At one point the mother sent me an email that I felt was important to respond to, so I forwarded it to the student and said something like “someone claiming to be your mother said this. If she really is this is my response, if she is not please disregard.”

  13. David

    ” I did write a letter to a college professor for the older one who taught evolution and global warming as science. (both are theories)”

    You are using the word theory wrong. A scientific theory is something that has been verified through experiments. It has explanatory power and is generally accepted in the scientific community.

    Gravity is also a theory.

  14. This is a great article. I led student mission trips with an organization & we had new teams/youth groups coming in every one or two weeks. There were always adult volunteers that came along & many times there were parents of students on these trips.

    Can I just say that our mission trips focused on leadership development, which meant that students did a lot of learning/experiencing/doing on their own…even if they failed. Sometimes I had to spend a good 90 minutes to 2 hours before the trip actually started explaining to the parents what was going to happen & how they couldn’t interfere, how they had to empower the students to do it on their own & even take directions/order from the student leaders even when they knew the students’ directions would end in failure.

    Helicopter parents create a consumption mindset & quite frankly living that way is self-centered. I wonder if parents really are confused why some kids are rebellious when parents act like this?

    James 4 is very clear that the fights, quarrels & arguments that occur between us are a result of the desires that battle within us. Can I assume that if a parent hasn’t given up the control they have on their children’s lives that they probably have not given up the control of their own life to God?

  15. It’s a disaster. Are these parents going to follow these peopel to the electric chair if they get a death sentence? Scratch that. These folks don’t have the ambition to kill someone they would have mom go over and give em a talking to. Yikes. What a way to handicap your kids as adults.

  16. Spot on Matt – hovers are crippling their kids because failure and adversity are part of life. Without kids developing the necessary coping skills for little problems, they’ll lack the requisite skills as adults to cope with big problems.

  17. The sad thing is what will happen to the kids when the helicopter parents die? Then you will have a 40+ year-old making the mistakes they would have made in high school or younger except that the consequences might be a little more severe. After all, you EXPECT a 16 year old to make bone-headed decisions, but the one who looks like a grandparent and should be a font of wisdom from all their experiences instead has to be taught how to be a responsible adult from their grandkids! Which means that they would be living out a Nickelodeon/Disney sitcom.

    The goal of my husband and I as parents is to train my kids on all the necessary skills to live independently and take responsibility for their actions: be able to handle money, clean the house, clean laundry, take care of their things, cook and manage their time. We are doing this by giving them responsibility for things a little bit at a time. Of course, it won’t guarantee that they will do those things when they leave the house, but at least we know we did our best, with the help of God.

  18. My parents are like that to some degree (eg. not extremist). But mommy and daddy had to protect their little boy from the world. I was homeschool from fourth grade, through tenth until I said I would enjoy returning to a public school setting. Although they were severely unhappy with my decision, I got what I was after.

    I was home schooled in the first place because the big bad world might be out to ruin their boy. Well, that didn’t work. By trying to keep me from the “unclean” I only turned rebellious and explored different alleys for my boredom and curiosity. I never got to do what teenagers do and I feel like I missed out on so much because I was locked up in my house all the time. I did “bad” things which were stupid, but never anything just stupid. Never had the chance. Now I’m 18 and I can’t relate to people. I have no memories of “remember that one time?” It’s sad. On one hand I wasn’t helicoptered but on another I was. And it sucks. Now my other brothers love every moment of it and have no idea.

    • Sorry to hear about your homeschooling experience. My mom did that with my younger sisters and it seemed to be a good experience for them, but in her involvement with support groups we came across a lot of families that were more into it for the sake of cloistering the kids instead of actually educating them.

      Believe it or not, though, you’re not the first guy (or the last) to make it to 18 without being able to relate to people. You’ve got a lot more years ahead of you–with plenty of time to make mistakes and figure things out on your own. And very few people have actually settled comfortably into their own skin by 18.

      I kind of had the opposite problem–I went to public school but ended up being one of the class pariahs pretty much the whole time, resulting in a pretty decent case of social anxiety that still gives me fits on occasion. It took a long time, well past 18, to get to the point where I’m pretty comfortable with myself and my limitations in terms of how much I can (and can’t) interact with people. I’ve got a few good friends, but I’ll never be the life of anyone’s party, and 20+ years later I’m finally okay with that.

      I guess what I’m getting at is that it will get better–just don’t dwell on the stuff you missed growing up, don’t get hung up on how awkward you think you might be around people, and understand that you’ve still got plenty of time to get out there experience some living.

  19. Walking the tightrope between wanting to protect my children because I love them and wanting them to learn for themselves (again, because I love them) is hard. Just this week, my six-year-old faced a visit with the principal that she justly deserved…and I have to confess, I wanted more than anything to save her from that, to protect her from that, to keep her little first-grade record squeaky clean. But I also knew that to do so would nullify the lesson she needed to learn.

    Now, when our senior pastor’s boys (who are twice my kids’ age) came over and invited the girls to go sledding a month ago, both Hubby and I went with them.

    Not because we were hovering–I trust the boys. (Even if I doubted they would know how to handle a five-year-old in tears the first time she got a faceful of snow after rolling off a sled.)

    I wanted to go sledding, too!

    It’s tough to watch your children need you a little bit less and be a little more independent as the days go by. I want to do all I can to shelter them from the disappointments and hurts of life. But that’s not fair to them. No matter how much it hurts me, they need to learn how to cope with life.

    I like that saying…raising your kids to be arrows, not boomerangs. What nobody ever tells you is how much your heart bittersweetly aches as you let your little arrows fly.

  20. I think it boils down to (amazingly) God’s view of children. Psalm 127:3 says in most translations that children are a “heritage” or “inheritance” from the Lord. Children are the legacy given to us by God. I think, whether the parent is a believer or not, that is something that is inherent to parenting – that children are our legacy. They’re what will be left behind when we’re gone. Their actions/behaviors/successes reflect for good or bad on us.

    The extreme ends of this are those who hover, trying to control their legacy, and those who completely ignore, not caring at all about their legacy. As usual, the “best” way lies somewhere in between. You need to care enough to teach your child how to live, but not so much that you feel like you need to be in control of the outcomes. That’s where God comes back in to play. You have to trust that _He_ is in control.

    For our kids, it’s partly our laziness, but we try to get them to be self-sufficient (dressing, pottying, feeding, etc.). Gotta say that my husband is better than me at this a lot of the time. I’m not so good at encouraging them to try something that I know will result in a mess that I’ll have to clean up. But at the same time, I’ve definitely reaped the rewards of his teaching our oldest how to make a sandwich! :)

  21. As a 53 year old music teacher, I’ve seen a lot of helicopter parents over the years. I’ve seen it a lot with my friends my age and their kids. They over hovered in areas where they shouldn’t and under hovered in other areas. I think a lot of it is fear based parenting… fear that their children aren’t going to succeed or be hurt. One of my friends was a stickler when her kids were growing up about keeping the doors locked at their house so no one would get (when they were home in a safe neighborhood) and homeschooling the kids to keep them safe from bad influences, but when her son was starting to get in trouble with internet porn and buying drugs over the internet, whcn I suggested her furniture maker husband build a locked box for the computer or they rip the internet out of their house, they didn’t do anything and it all kept getting worse and worse. I’ve seen several of them ignore major life threatening drug use etc, while over hovering in other areas. Its very confusing to the kids. I think it also sends a message to the kids that they can’t succed on their own. When I suggest that my friends kids could actually do something, so many times they come back with “but what if they fail?” A healthy part of growth and learning is struggling and sometimes failing. I would much rather see kids have a chance to learn that when they were younger rather than when they were older and the stakes were so much higher.