Back off. Let kids fail; Let them fall from trees and get Bs and Cs.
The era of the helicopter parent must end now. Parents are stifling their kids. The evidence is clear. Young adults are leaving home completely unprepared for the world. Parents who do everything for their kids and keep tabs on their every move can be as bad as those who completely neglect their children’s upbringing.
25 odd years ago, when I was in college, the worst I saw was kids who embraced their newfound freedom by taking up smoking and binge drinking. Of course those are not good practices, but what we see now is worse.
Helicopter parent, Tiger mom, bubble wrapper; whatever name you give it, all the research is screaming at us to stop, post haste!
Stories of suicides at college keep popping up in the news. Young students leave home unable to cope with daily life without a parent guiding them. I, personally, know of half a dozen kids who have left their universities to return home, feeling completely ill-equipped to cope with independent daily life. I know of two students who had to be hospitalized for depression due to these issues and one who attempted suicide.
Unfortunately, most of these tragic stories, whether conveyed through the grapevine or from the media, do nothing but alarm parents. They don’t advise parents on how to better prepare their kids for life away from home.
We also hear amusing stories of parents accompanying adult children to job interviews, parents calling their child’s boss to complain about overwork, and young adults who show up to jury duty with a parent in tow. None of these actions are appropriate behaviors for the parents or children. The helicopter style of parenting is born from love and anxiety on the part of the parent, but it is misguided and not a positive way to raise kids.
Parents who are already hovering need a manual to land the helicopter and step away from the blades cutting their kids off at the knees. It’s almost never too late to learn how to help your kids help themselves.
My eldest son is at the cusp of adulthood. He will graduate from high school in May. I feel confident, though, that my husband and I have done our best to prepare him for college and beyond.
I have never been a helicopter parent. I didn’t set out to compose my parenting method to avoid helicopter parenting, it was just my style to back off and let my kids be kids. I was exhausted in my formative parenting years. None of my four sons slept through the night until they were well into toddlerhood, on the move and active, and by then, I was just too tired to be involved in their play all day. Of course I played with them and guided them, but I also happily stepped back and gave them space to learn.
I remember taking my first born to a playdate at the playground when he was a mobile toddler. I parked myself on a bench and let him have the run of the small, closed-off area. I knew he couldn’t escape and I enjoyed watching him climb, jump and tumble around the equipment, cushioned by wood chips. I anticipated having a chat with my friend while our little ones burned off some energy in the sun.
I was dismayed when she never sat down. Not once! She followed her toddler throughout every inch of the playground. She didn’t just stroll around, watching. She climbed the ladder behind her child, and then dashed around to catch the precious package at the bottom of the slide. When I eventually gave up on sitting and stood to follow my friend so that we could at least get some adult conversation in, I knew that her style was not only never going to be mine, but also that it was probably doing more harm than good.
Fast forward 17 years and I can see a clear difference between kids whose parents hover and pull the puppet strings and kids with parents who give them the tools to make good choices and help themselves. Kids with helicopter parents struggle to find their way. Their parents become a crutch to get through even the smallest obstacles in life.
There are simple ways to help your kids grow and blossom. They may stumble and fall. They might even get hurt, but you can be pretty sure that they’ll get up, brush themselves off, and move on in a better direction.
My fourth son is seven years old. I know that I’ve given him tools to think and act for himself. I advised him to stop doing something I perceived as dangerous and he responded by saying, “Mom, don’t worry, I won’t get hurt, and if I do, I’ll learn my lesson and won’t do it that way next time.”
Helpful tips for every stage of parenting
1. If you are still in your early days of parenting, do yourself and your children a favor by letting them play independently. Help your child learn to entertain himself. If you are your child’s sole source of entertainment, not only will you will never get time to yourself, but your child will come to depend on you every minute of his day and feel helpless when you are not available to give your undivided attention. If you give your child the tools he needs to safely play, explore and even take a tumble, he will grow more independent and confident. You can do this from the time he can sit up, or even earlier. Sit your child on a blanket, surround him with toys and books, and step out of his sight. Watch as he plays, happily. If he cries, looking for you, step into his line of sight and verbally reassure him, before stepping out of sight again. By doing this, you show him he can count on you but that he doesn’t need you every second.
2. If you child is a bit older, make a list of activities she can do on her own, so that when she approaches you to request your help, you are ready with ideas for her. Suggestions include: Read a book, draw, write a story, build a fort, play a game (if a sibling is available), dance to music, build a city of Legos… You get the idea.
3. School aged children should be capable of, and expected to do, homework independently. Of course they might have questions from time to time, but if you feel as though they are using you as a crutch, set up a homework space in an area of the house where you are not readily available. Or, simply remove yourself from the situation. Say that you have to start making dinner, you are working on something else and cannot help right now, anything to give your child the time and space to see that he can do it on his own. This is one of the most important skills you can help your child develop to ensure success as the move through school and beyond.
Also, step away from the poster board and rubber cement. Let your kid do his own science experiment or diorama or oral report. Sure, it would probably look nicer if you did it, but then it’s yours, not his. He can’t take pride in something he didn’t do. As a teacher, I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that we can tell when the parent did the bulk of the work. If you do your kid’s project, you are essentially teaching him he can’t do it himself. Just don’t.
4. As children enter middle school and move through more challenging coursework, they will, of course, need help from time to time. If you edit their work, you do them no favors if you do not include them in the process. Make your child sit with you and be a part of the editing process so that she can learn to do it herself. You won’t be sitting next to her in her dorm room when she has to write a paper, so teach her now to do it well, and on her own.
5. When your kid runs into trouble dealing with a teacher or another kid, don’t rush to make a phone call, send an email or meet with the teacher/parent. Teach your child how to handle the situation. If you start teaching your child to advocate for himself when your he is young, you will stand and watch, with pride, when he tells you about something that went wrong and then goes on to explain how he has already settled it. It is these priceless moments that give you an inkling that you’ve done your job and your child will be well equipped to go out into the world. (Caveat: I always make sure my children know they can ask me for help if the issue gets to a point at which they don’t know what to do.)
6. Let them fail… This is the hardest part of parenting and the fear of it is the cause of most helicopter parenting. Parents who hover do so out of love and anxiety. They worry about their kids. We all do. The difference is in how to handle it. If you let your little one fall and skin his elbow, show him how to wash it, put on a band-aid for him and send him on his way. If your 4th grader fails a test, ask him why he thinks he failed. The right answer is, “I didn’t study/do my homework/listen in class.” Help him see that his actions have consequences. Follow up with a question to direct him to the solution of how to avoid the failure next time. He will get there, I promise! Better to let him fail early and help him learn how to succeed in the future. The future comes sooner than you can imagine.
The bottom line is, give your child freedom and chances to build confidence from very early on and it will become second nature to both you and your child.
If you follow your 2 year old around the playground and never let him fall, he won’t learn how to get up, brush himself off and move on.
If you do your child’s science fair project for him, he won’t know how to get his hands dirty, put in the hard work, and feel the pride that comes from hard work.
If you fight your child’s battles at school, he won’t learn how to advocate for himself and when he goes to college and encounters a stick in the mud professor who won’t budge on a response to an ambiguous test question, he’ll want to call you to help.
Let me be clear: college professors DO NOT want to hear from parents; neither do admissions officers. Teach your kids to be strong advocates for themselves. Teach them to do the hard work. Teach them to stand up for what is right.
Parenting is the one job that, when done right, you are sure to lose after 18-21 odd years. Embrace it. Step away from the helicopter and give your kids room to fly on their own.