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Is It Time to Cut Helicopter Parents Some Slack?

A recent article in The Globe and Mail describes helicopter parents as “the germaphobic, nanny-cam-using, teacher-stalking mothers (and fathers) everyone loves to hate.”  But, it goes on to say, parents who hover are not just neurotic freaks; they’re educated (and often wealthy) adults responding in a “rational if misguided” way to “dramatic changes in major social institutions.”

The way I see it, the breadth of the helicopter parenting phenomenon crept up out of nowhere – like cupcakes.  Remember when cupcakes were something you thought about only if you were having a birthday party at school?  (Something which, thanks to fear-mongering, isn’t even allowed anymore.)  What’s so great about cupcakes?  I should know, since my friends have a blog solely devoted to cupcakes.  I get it, they’re cute, but does anybody even really like cupcakes?  No one says, “You know what I could go for right now?  A cupcake.”  That’s never been said, except maybe by a helicopter parent.

Like cupcakes, parenting is trendy – as evidenced by this and so many other websites – and the innumerable magazines and books dedicated to the subject.  Millions of dollars are being spent on unnecessary baby gear, in soft, soothing pastels or bright, funky colors, depending on how you see yourself.  (Am I a loving, smart parent, or am I a funky, wild parent?  Either way, I’m a good parent, that’s for sure.  I mean, look at all this stuff!)  What I’m saying is, you shouldn’t pay $4 for a cupcake and it’s silly to blow $35 on a onesie.  But we do, because we love feeling hip.  We love consuming, especially in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. 

It stands to reason, then, that most helicopter parents aren’t evil jerks; they’re just victims of the false threats against children propogated by a 24/7 news media and the ever-increasing amount of businesses that stand to profit from the industry built around creating the perfect child.  Amy Tiemann, editor of the book Courageous Parents, Confident Kids: Letting Go So You Both Can Grow, says, “Marketers create problems to sell solutions.  Who knew that a cold baby wipe on a baby’s bottom was a problem until someone invented a baby-wipe warmer?”

Let’s not forget all of the mixed messages being sent by schools and other parents.  “Schools complain about parents who keep teachers on speed dial, even as they demand unprecedented levels of parental involvement,” according to the Globe.  Dr. Margaret K. Nelson, author of Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times, says, “In most middle-class neighbourhoods, parents would be ostracized if they left a child unattended in a playground.  If you don’t want to be this kind of vigilant parent, other people are going to make your life pretty hard.”  I brought this idea up last week in a piece about over-parenting, saying:

If you’re not a helicopter parent, you’re neglectful.  If you let your kids go “free-range,” you’re shirking your responsibility.  If you parent intensively, you are ruining your kids.  There is just no way to win here.  So maybe we should stop trying to.  What if parenting was no longer a race?  No longer a competition to see who could do it the best, buy the most, be the happiest?  What if parenting was less about Parenting and more about raising kids?

But there are instances in which helicopter parenting is less about a well-meaning guardian going overboard and more about serving one’s own needs.  For example, parents who try to impress the court during a custody battle with copious facts and figures about a child’s life.  Gaia Bernstein, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, admits that, “Divorce lawyers advise clients to learn the names of their child’s teachers and friends, take the kid to soccer games, or better still, start coaching the team.  It becomes this race for involvement.”  I’m sure this happens all the time, especially when the parents of older children get divorced.  How do you explain to a 10-year-old that Daddy only coached the soccer team so he wouldn’t have to pay as much child support, or Mommy only put you in ballet to get physical custody?  You don’t have to.  Kids have an innate understanding of these types of betrayals.

But I imagine most helicopter parents aren’t as manipulative as that.  Dr. Tiemann says, “the majority of parents with hovering tendencies don’t seem so crazy,” considering the force of the contributing factors.  She notes, “It’s easier to point a finger at a parent than to say, wow, we need to change the whole system.”  So maybe it is time to give helicopter parents a much-needed break?  After all, making them feel bad is only going to push them to try to be better, and who has time to enroll in another Mommy-and-Me yoga class?  Not with all the cupcakes that need to be baked.

Illustration: Greg Williams via Flickr

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