Nancy was thrilled to receive an acceptance letter from her top-choice Ivy League school. For years, she researched the best college programs and studied how to produce a winning application package.
She hired one tutor to help with SAT preparation and another to help write a successful personal essay. She visited many campuses, touring and networking with deans, admissions directors, and professors. It was now time to share the good news with her son, Will — the one going off to college.
Will is among the thousands of young people, born between 1982 and 1995, who fall victim to a “helicopter parent.” The term first appeared in the 1990s to describe a specific group of baby boomers who hover over their children throughout every stage of their development. Despite good intentions, these parents do more harm than good.
This ineffective parenting style usually begins in preschool (with over-programmed kids attending karate, piano, ballet, yoga, gymnastics, swimming, art, and cooking classes after their regular school day) and escalates to college and beyond.
Lisa, a recent business school graduate, has always appreciated her father’s involvement in her life. A few months before graduation, he wrote her resume, embellishing it with impressive (albeit exaggerated) information, and spent big money on designer business cards. Now, he accompanies his 21-year-old daughter to career fairs and job interviews, often intervening when the delicate subject of salary comes up.
“She’s a bright girl, but I don’t want anyone taking advantage of her. I want her to start out comfortably.”
Lisa graciously accepts his help.
“It’s nice to have someone who cares so much about me and my future. I’m very lucky.”
It’s typical for parents to micromanage their young children. Babies rely on their caregivers to nourish and protect them. But for many parents, letting go becomes an emotional challenge — even when the child is ready for independence. As children grow older, they deserve opportunities to become more self-reliant and responsible. These are basic, but crucial, life skills. But helicopter parents interfere with every aspect of their child’s life, giving a very clear message: “You cannot succeed without me.”
They do not allow their kids to fail, or succeed, without their help. Children cannot learn to trust themselves if their parents do not trust them to handle their own affairs. Crossing the line from parental guidance to predomination can lead to negative consequences for the children by:
• Weakening their decision-making and problem-solving skills.
• Undermining their confidence
• Instilling a fear of failure.
• Encouraging dependence on parental approval.
• Increasing anxiety
• Decreasing self-motivation.
• Blurring the boundary between childhood and adulthood.
• Slowing social and emotional development.
• Fostering a negative self-image.
• Robbing them of valuable opportunities to learn from their own experiences .
Overprotective parents have existed since the beginning of time. However, with the rapid rise of technology, hovering has become much easier. Computers, e-mail, web cams, cellphones, and text messaging can collectively be called “the longest umbilical cord in the world.” They make it possible for parents and children to access each other around the clock. The business of information technology is booming, and new products are being developed to target the helicopter parent population.
“These new products will significantly expand the monitoring and tracking capabilities of parents, enabling them to keep track of whom their children meet online, monitor kids’ movements and location, and keep tabs on their behavior and lifestyle,” according to senior analyst Kevin Osborn.
This growing trend may also be a result of today’s critical economic situation.
The uncertainty of the job market creates anxiety for both parents and their children. Desperately wanting their sons and daughters to land secure, well-paying jobs, helicopter parents may push too hard, especially during college years. Academic excellence is important, but it does not compare to the knowledge gained from living independently, which includes making mistakes and learning from them. That freedom is invaluable, because it enables young men and women to explore the entirety of what it means to be an adult.
Some helicopter parents encourage their children to attend prestigious univerisities, believing that the degree will result in a successful career, but then they strain to pay their child’s tuition. Parents can come to see their children as investments and believe they deserve to be involved.
Helicopter parenting is prevalent among all racial and ethnic lines, as well as socioeconomic status. Recent studies indicate that nearly 70 percent of college students’ parents cross the line between supporting and controlling their children. Yet, a marked difference exists between men and women when it comes to micromanaging their kids.
Fathers tend to be preoccupied with concrete measures of success such as grades and finances. They are more aggressive in their approach and go straight to the top to resolve problems.
Ben arranged for his daughter to attend a nearby university so she could live at home while taking classes.
Each night, he helps her with her homework, often re-writing papers for her. He carefully monitors her grades, expecting no less than a 3.08 average.
After she scored an 87 on a statistics exam, Ben visited the professor, demanding that the grade be changed. When the professor refused, he spoke with the head of the department and wrote a letter to the Dean until the grade was raised three points.
Mothers, on the other hand, tend to become more overly involved with their son’s lives. Theirs is more of an emotional attachment, a desperate need to be needed.
Beverly drives more than two hours to her 20-year-old son’s dormitory three times a week to cook him meals and do his laundry and housecleaning. She schedules his doctor’s appointments and gets up early to give him a daily wake up call.
Whatever happened to autonomy — not to mention alarm clocks?
The academic watchdogs: carefully monitor homework and grades, often completing assignments for their children; speak to teachers, professors, and administrators on behalf of their children, often arguing over grades or deadlines.
The safety monitors: worry excessively about every aspect of their children’s lives, including health, eating, and sleeping habits, living arrangements, relationships, exposure to sex, drugs, and alcohol; constantly keep tabs on children’s whereabouts.
The enablers: provide unlimited money and domestic services, although their children are old enough, and capable enough, to take care of themselves.
The best friends: strive to maintain constant contact with their children, preventing independence and freedom; establishes no healthy boundaries.
The agents: organize, schedule, and sort out difficulties, while going to great lengths to give their children an advantage over their competition.
As children develop, they need practice making their own decisions. Facing challenges builds self-esteem and confidence.
Too much parental participation can interfere with the development of autonomy, detrimental to self-reliance and independence.
A parent’s duty is to respect her children’s needs, while serving as a positive role model.
As tempting as it may be to jump in to prevent disappointment or failure, allow your children to learn from their mistakes. In the end, the lessons they learn will be invaluable.
By the time they reach their college years, young adults will be strong, ready to face the world with gusto.
Laura Varoscak-DeInnocentiis is a writer, educator and mom living in Brooklyn. A regular contributor to New York Parenting Media, she has won several editorial awards for her articles.