They have good intentions. They want to protect their kids and help them get the highest grades and be successful. With today’s technology - from Skype chats to smartphones - many parents are literally hovering over their kids, giving them direction and advice at any moment, from anywhere.
These are “helicopter” parents.
But are they actually helping their kids? Julie Lythcott-Haims says no. In her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, the attorney and author takes a closer look at this parenting style and explains how to stop it.
Lythcott-Haims had firsthand experience with helicopter parents during her decade as dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students, she says, were brilliant and accomplished on paper. In reality, many were incapable of taking care of themselves.
“They were turning to their parents constantly for guidance, problem solving, to have them make the choice about something,” she said. Oftentimes, she had to remind those parents that their kids were old enough to take care of themselves.
Are you one of them?
One evening, Lythcott-Haims discovered that she might be a helicopter mom herself. Her children were 8 and 10 at the time. "I leaned over at dinner and began cutting my 10-year-old's meat. I realized, 'Oh my goodness, I’m overparenting my 10-year-old. He should be able to cut his own meat!' It’s my job to teach him. I haven’t done that. I’m on the track to being one of those parents," she recalled thinking. She began to develop real empathy for parents and realized they were hovering with the best of intentions.
Any parent, she says, can examine their parenting style and determine if they are over-parenting their kids or not. There are three types of overparenting.
“Overprotective; parents who think the world is scary and unsafe and unpredictable, therefore, I must protect and prevent. The second type is the over directive type. This is a parent who says, ‘I know best what leads to success and you will do as I say. You’ll study these topics, you’ll do these activities and you’ll be highly achieving in it.’ The third type is the concierge, the parent who just wants to make life smoother, from waking their kid up, to keeping track of their activities, to making sure they haven’t forgotten anything, to having those tough conversations with the teachers to outright helping with the homework or maybe doing the homework for the kid.”
According to the author, the term “helicopter parenting" was used for the first time in the late sixties. It became more popular in the nineties, among the baby boom generation. When the next generation, Gen X, came along, they thought that’s how they should raise their kids too. But it's something only seen in affluent families.
“This is something you do when you have some extra time and money. Helicopter parenting is not happening in low-income communities,” she pointed out. “Parents don’t have the time or the ability to sort of micro-manage their kids every moment.”
Short term gain, long term pain
Lythcott-Haims says although there are short term benefits to being so over-protective, there is a long term cost.
“If you are at a playground standing next to them as they’re on the swings, if they fall or slip you’re there to catch them, they do not suffer the bruised knee,” she gave as an example. “If you’re helping with your kid’s homework, they are going to get better grade. The long term cost is if your kid doesn’t learn how to manage their own body on the playground how to take the appropriate risks, which is a lesson only learned by falling a few times, they don’t learn the long term lesson. If you’re always helping with their homework, what you’re effectively telling them is hey kid you’re not capable to be a fourth grader, don’t worry I’m going to help. They begin to feel less capable. They begin to feel very reliant on their parents to correct or perfect their academic work. It’s not preparing them to be persistent learners who will be successful in life.”
So what can parents do if they want to break the hovering cycle within their own families?
“We have to stop saying 'we' when we mean 'our son or daughter',” Lythcott-Haims insisted. “Too often a parent would say 'we are on the travel soccer team.' No, your son is or your daughter is. The next thing is we have to stop arguing with all of the adults in our kids’ life. I’m not saying we should lay down in the face of authority. What I’m saying is we need to teach our kids to advocate for themselves. The third thing is we must stop doing our kids' homework. The fourth thing is we've got to build skills, teach them to cross the street, teach them to make a meal, to remember to put their own items in their backpacks, which becomes a briefcase one day.”
Lythcott-Haims offers a step-by-step approach to teaching kids how to take care of themselves.
“First, you do it for them. Then you do it with them, where you’re narrating out loud, teaching them how to do it. Then, you watch them do it. You step back and you give them little tips and guidance along the way, but you’re watching them doing it. Then, the step four, they do it completely on their own.”
When kids have all the skills to take care of themselves, Lythcott-Haims says, they will be prepared for adulthood.