August 15, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
It's a natural instinct to want to help your child. After all, that's what parents do: We protect and support our children until they are ready to go out on their own.
But these days some parents are defining "protect" and "support" a little differently than usual. (The definition of when kids are ready to be on their own has gotten fuzzy, too.)
What Is "Helicopter Parenting?"
Teachers, coaches, school administrators and others who work with children are seeing more and more parents who are very involved often overly involved in their children's lives. I think we have all seen or heard about parents who:
- Do homework assignments or projects for their children
- Run to school with forgotten lunches, assignments or jewelry
- Argue with teachers when their child doesn't get an "A"
- Pick activities and even friends for their children
- Call their college-age children every day, or do their laundry for them
- Yell at the coaches (or, worse, at their children) on the sidelines of sporting events
Sometimes our kids really do need us to advocate for them. And some children, because of emotional or physical problems, need more support than others. But really, these are the exceptions.
Over involvement by parents is called "helicopter parenting." The name refers to parenting from directly overhead.
The reasons for this trend are not entirely clear. In our post-9/11 world, it's possible that parents are more fearful for their children's well-being. Being overly involved is a way of knowing at every moment what's going on with your child. And all the new technology makes that constant contact so possible.
Our achievement culture also contributes to the problem. For all sorts of reasons, acceptance to top colleges has become very competitive. In some families, resume-building starts as early as preschool. Anything less than an "A" can feel like getting in to Harvard is next to impossible.
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The Risks of Taking Over
Helicopter parenting can be bad for kids. Here's why:
- If we don't let our kids make mistakes, they miss out on all sorts of learning. It sounds trite, but it's true: We learn from our mistakes.
- Expecting people to do what we want when we want is not a helpful way to approach life. Teachers and school administrators say that they are seeing kids who act very entitled. This is not going to help them on college interviews, job interviews or in life in general.
- Parents who always "hover" risk having a child who grows up anxious. Children can internalize their parents' fear that something will happen to them. In fact, one study done at Keene State College showed that students whose parents had "helicopter" behavior were at higher risk of depression and anxiety.
- When parents do everything for a child, it sends the message that a child can't do it himself. This is not good for a child's self-esteem. It makes it harder for a child to learn to be independent. And it can contribute to depression and anxiety.
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Resist the Urge
The next time your child leaves his homework at home or gets a lower grade than you'd like, take a deep breath. Fight the urge to jump in and fix things. It's fine to offer help and suggestions that's part of your job as a parent. But don't take over.
Your child may mess up. Something bad might even happen. But if you've taught your child the right lessons, he'll recover quickly.
It's also true that no matter how hard you try, you can't prevent every bad thing from happening to your child. We don't have that much control over life.
Celebrate your children for who they are. Maybe they're going to Harvard, maybe not. You want them to work hard. But you also want them to know that there are so many more important things in life than where you go to college. Now there's a really great lesson you can teach your children: Appreciate life's gifts and find happiness wherever you can.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.