Lisa Leslie Henderson writer
We are the most involved parents of any generation in American history. Seventy-five percent of us say we are closer to our children than our parents were to us. As concerned and interested parents, we are highly invested in our children. We join playgroups and gym classes. We send our children to tutoring, specialty summer camps, and on international community service trips. We drive across New England for sporting tournaments and across country to visit colleges. We talk with our college-age students an average of ten times a week and often share our homes with our college graduates until they can get on their feet financially. The question is: Are we doing well by our children? Is our generation’s "parenting style" creating independent, self-assured, and capable young adults? Or, is over involvement inhibiting necessary developmental lessons on the road to adulthood?
As current as these questions sound, they have been plaguing parents for decades. “Parent-centered” and “child-centered” approaches define the poles of the advice spectrum. While no expert or camp has definitively won the debate, the consensus is that children with warm, connected parents are better adjusted. If parental "involvement" is good for our children, does it follow that "highly involved" is better?
Dr. Robert Evans, Executive Director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, who has worked with thousands of schools and students nationwide says, no. “Parents today often try to prepare a path for their child, rather than preparing their child for a path,” observes Evans. Ironically this type of parenting actually stunts the very competences it is trying to encourage.
“Many parents try so hard to fast-track their children and to smooth their path, or simply to keep them from suffering unwelcome consequences of any kind, that they allow them little scope to solve problems and less to learn life lessons from their choices and conduct,” observes Evans. “Among the casualties are self-regulation and social skills, a tolerance for losing, a sense of fair play, a work ethic, and ultimately their self-esteem.”
Red flags have gone up during the last five years as childcare workers, doctors, educators, and human service providers have seen increasing evidence of parental over involvement, particularly in affluent communities. The term “helicopter parents” was coined to refer to those who hover over their children like the low-flying aircraft, a phone call away whether needed or not. A hallmark of helicopter parenting is over involvement in what has traditionally been considered our children’s domain. Wanting what is best for our children, we are often pulled in many directions doing for our children, hoping to give them an edge.
Such behavior can be present at all stages of childhood, from playing classical music to our unborn children to researching job opportunities and internships, and in some cases, even trying to negotiate salaries for our college-age children’s first jobs. The term “Black Hawk” refers to those of us who cross the line into the realm of unethical behavior, editing papers for our children or cajoling their coaches for more playing time or their teachers for better grades.
Why has the scale tipped toward over involvement? Lauren Corbett, a Wellesley-based family therapist, suggests that “most parents feel compelled to meet enormous expectations for their children’s emotional, social, and academic competence.” This pressure to raise perfect children leaves parents feeling worn-out, anxious, and confused.
Evans echoes Corbett’s observation, proposing that a rising tide of parental anxiety is at work here, fueled by a rapidly changing socioeconomic world. “It is getting harder and harder for parents to predict what preparation their children will need to be safe and successful in the future,” explains Evans. “In the past, each generation has basically tweaked what their parents did, which worked as long as the world changed relatively slowly and we had few choices.” In today’s rapidly-changing world, however, parents worry that their knowledge will not be relevant to their children’s future. Under these conditions, it is easy to grab onto a perceived holy grail, like an elite education, to provide what many consider to be the one certain path to success.
The result? A cultural shift in the view of American childhood. “Where once we emphasized childhood innocence, now we stress its competence,” observes Evans. “And where once it was accepted that learning from experience meant coping with the consequences of mistakes, now many parents feel it vital to protect their children from any errors or negative outcomes.” That is a tall order for even the most masterful parents.
The pace of family life contributes to this behavior. “Given how busy families are, it is sometimes easier to do for our children, rather than letting them learn to do for themselves,” observes Corbett. There is not always time to learn by trial and error or to allow kids to work through their own frustrations.
The world around us can also fuel angst. Over the past two decades, our children have grown up protected by car seats and bicycle helmets and have witnessed the horrors of a number of random shooting deaths on school campuses across the country. An army of child-rearing experts, from Dr. Spock to T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leech to James Dobson (and even business guru Stephen Covey) tell us how to raise our children. As a result, we take our roles as parents seriously, even if we are confused as times about what that role should be, and have high expectations for our children’s school, coaches, and any others persons or institutions that assume the role of in loco parentis.
If you mix high expectations fostered by a consumer-oriented culture with technological advances in the form of cell phones, text messaging, and e-mail, all of which make it possible for us to be in constant contact with our children, you can see the recipe for the fuel that propels helicopter parents forward. As one college administrator put it, “the cell phone has become the world’s longest umbilical cord.”
But if highly involved parenting helps children get on the fast track, is it such a bad thing? The sad truth is that many kids who successfully make it to college are not ready for real life by the time it arrives. According to Dr. Mel Levine, author of Ready or Not, Here Life Comes (Simon & Schuster, 2005), alarming numbers of young adults upon graduating from college are ill-equipped to enter the workforce. “Our graduates may well lack the practical skills, the habits, the behaviors, the real-world insights, and the frames of mind pivotal for career start-up.”
Chances are, our children are unhappy. Consider for a moment the unspoken messages that over involvement sends to the children that we love, such as: You are not capable of handling your life on your own; Your value is linked solely to your performance; Don’t take risks, because failure is not an option; Questionable ethics are okay if the ends justify the means. A recent study conducted at Middlebury College found that kids with over-involved parents were likely to be less satisfied with their lives. In fact, kids from affluent, education-obsessed families are considered to be the new “at risk” group for substance abuse, depression, and anxiety disorders.
How do you know if you are a helicopter parent? Where do we draw the line between what is helpful and what is hovering? Lauren Corbett suggests that "if the accomplishments of your children affect you to the point of preoccupation—where you are spending too much time and energy working on their issues—and if your own self-worth is based on your child’s accomplishments, [then] you might need to take a closer look.”
Important questions to ask yourself as situations arise include: Is it necessary for me to be involved in this? What will happen if I’m not? Can my child handle this? What am I getting out of being involved in this situation? What is my child losing by my stepping in? Key questions to ask your child include: What do you think you might do about this problem? What resources are available to you for help? What steps have you taken so far?
In the end, a critical skill for parents is to keep their eyes on the real prize: helping our children to become independent, responsible adults who are eager and prepared to go out into the world and make their contribution. Lori Tension, Dean of the first-year class at Wellesley College, in a letter to parents, reminds us of an old adage taken from a sampler in a New England country inn: There are two gifts parents must give to their children. One is roots, the other is wings.