By Brianna Meiers
As competition for college spots and a secure livelihood increase, helicopter parents have become common in recent years. Popular books and blogs suggest that outside of work time, devoted parents spend much of their waking hours providing a warm, safe environment that minimizes their children’s stress and experience of failure, while maximizing opportunities for learning with specialized classes, tutors and athletics. Yet, a growing body of research suggests that despite their good intentions, over-parenting of this nature can often hinder children’s ability to develop independently.
The 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity in the US, gave rise to an era where parents, with little else to worry about, became increasingly involved in their children’s lives. Helicopter parenting, so named for parents who “hover” over their children’s lives, intervening when they deem necessary, began to grow rapidly. Even though crime went down, parents refused to allow their children to leave their sight. The percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001. Even though deaths due to injury dropped by more than 50% since 1980, parents lobbied to have jungle gyms removed from playgrounds. Free playtime for 6-to-8 year olds dropped 25% from 1981 to 1997 while homework more than doubled.
Many proponents of helicopter parenting practices point to the studies of John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst whose “attachment theory” was developed to explain the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Bowlby postulated that attachment behaviors like crying and searching for a parent were adaptive responses to separation from a primary attachment figure who provides support, protection and care. The attachment system basically asks “Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible and attentive?” If the child perceives the answer to be “yes” he or she feels loved, secure and confident. If the child perceives the answer to be “no” the child experiences anxiety and, behaviorally, is likely to exhibit attachment behaviors that can lead to profound despair and depression.
“A misguided version of attachment theory dominates recent discussions of parenting,” say emeritus professors of psychology at University of California, Berkeley Philip A. Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan. “Actually, John Bowlby … said no such thing. To raise a secure, self-reliant child, the parent must be there when needed and allow the child to play, explore, experiment and make errors, and return to the parent as a “safe haven” when he or she needs to – not when the parent decides the child needs help, support or structure.”
Philip and Carolyn Cowan assert that while hundreds of recent studies show that parent’s behavior towards their children is important, how parents treat each other and how the collaborate as “co-parents” plays a more central role in shaping the environment in which children develop, learn how to manage relationships and cope with the challenges of school and work. One particular recent study from the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, found that “intensive mothering” often damaged the mental health of mothers while leaving children fragile and unable to cope with new life experiences on their own.
In the study, 181 women with children under 5 years were asked a series of questions designed to identify their parenting style. Women who believed mothers were the most important parents and were reluctant to let others help them care for their child were found to be less satisfied with their lives, while those who sought specialist knowledge and skills to aid in parenting were more likely to face difficult stress and depression. Nearly 25% of the women displayed signs of depression. “[Helicopter parenting mothers] may think that it makes them better mothers, so they are willing to sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children’s cognitive, social and emotional outcomes,” said the authors of the study, “In reality, intensive parenting may have the opposite effect on children from what parents intend.”
As a high school counselor in New Fairfield, Connecticut for 30 years, Rich Barbera has a number of stories involving helicopter parents. He remembers experiences with parents picking up SAT applications for kids who weren’t planning on going to college or showing up in the guidance counselor’s office with college applications that they had filled out on their kids’ behalf. For children in high school, this sort of parenting can be embarrassing while also stunting important growth. Dr. Ken Haller, associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine states that “around middle school, it’s part of children’s natural development to identify more with a peer group. If they’re constantly going back to Mom and Dad to make all the decisions, this process becomes more difficult.”
Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, describes his own experience as a helicopter parent before concluding it was detrimental to his child and his own health. Honoré was at a parent-teacher conference for his kindergarten-aged son. While most reports were fine but not exceptional, the art teacher expressed great excitement over the creativity of Honoré’s son, eventually referring to him as “a gifted artist.” “It was one of those moments when you don’t hear anything else,” says Honore. After racing home to look up art tutors, Honoré recollects that his son told him “I just wanna draw. Why do grownups have to take over everything?”, which he refers to as “a searing epiphany.” Today, Honoré writes and lectures about the benefits of slowing down. He cites research suggesting the brain in its relaxed state is more creative and makes more nuanced connections.
While many studies have illustrated the severely detrimental effects helicopter parenting, it is important to remember that over-protective parenting, as Madeline Levine points out in her book Teach Your Children Well, almost always comes from a place of well-meaning love. However, good intentions, if taken to the extreme, often lead to negative results. By allowing their children the freedom to delight in the curiosity and exploration of childhood, parents can save themselves a great deal of anxiety while allowing their children to build the skills and confidence necessary to mature effectively and achieve on their own.
Brianna Meiers, an education expert who regularly publishes info about online psych schools for interested students, joins Home & Family to talk about overbearing parents and the often detrimental role they can play in child development. This continues previous conversations on the blog about when parental involvement goes too far, and how to recognize the signs before it’s too late.
Updated October 2020