Now there’s a term no one had heard of a decade or two ago. Now, it’s the talk of the town. As with all buzz terms however, there’s the usual amount of hyperbole and generalizations-based-on-incidents. In this brand new blog series, we’ll unpack this helicopter parenting phenomenon in more detail, separate the facts from the hype, and more importantly, see what this means for doing youth ministry. Let’s start by defining what helicopter parenting is exactly and what the causes are.
What is Helicopter Parenting?
Though the term was first used in a book from 1969, it didn’t start to become a household term since the new millennium. In 2011 is had becomes such a common term, that it became a dictionary entrance.
Helicopter parenting refers to a style of parenting where the parents are over-focused on their kids, hovering over them like helicopters. It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is over-controlling, over-protecting, and over-perfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting, says one expert.(1)
It manifests itself in different ways:
- Being over-protective (think of safety measures like helmets, kneepads, etc., using car seats beyond appropriate age, tracking kids with GPS or cellphones, but also limiting kids’ activities to within immediate view and constantly warning for possible dangers)
- Being over-sanitized (disinfecting everything, preventing kids from playing in dirt or even from playing outside)
- Being over-involved (volunteering for pretty much everything, contacting coaches and teachers way for minor things)
- Being over-focused (having no or little life outside of the kids, letting kids dominate the family schedule)
- Bing over-perfected (pushing kids to excel in everything, signing kids up for tons of extracurricular activities, not just helping kids with assignments but even taking over or doing it for them completely)
- Being over-controlling (deciding everything for the kids, including whom to play with, or what to do, what books to read, being involved in every decision no matter how small).
What’s the Reasoning behind Over-Parenting?
The reasons for over-parenting, as it’s also called, are various. There’s peer-pressure from other parents to be certain. I’ve experienced this myself as well, when other parents voice disapproval over the amount of freedom we give our son. The temptation to fall in line is big.
Another reason is the deep desire parents have for their kid to succeed. This in itself is a perfectly good motivation of course. Who doesn’t want their kids to be successful? But when success becomes the ultimate goal, parents can become too focused—and too limiting. A similar reason is genuine concern and the fear that their child will get hurt, emotionally or physically.
The unstable economic climate has certainly contributed as well. Since a job is no longer a given after college, parents are doing everything to maximize their child’s opportunities. That includes entering the insanely competitive race for Ivy League admissions.
Some parents try to compensate for their own childhood, which was less than perfect or where they lacked parental attention and supervision. Or they missed out on certain experiences or successes and project these onto their kids. Living vicariously through their kids is certainly one way helicopter parenting manifests itself.
How Big an Issue is Helicopter Parenting?
The problem with the buzz around helicopter parenting is that much of it is anecdotal evidence. We’ve all read stories of parents showing up for their kids’ job interview, parents who call the dean about minor issues or who do their kids’ homework and projects. And there are stories like the parents of a 6-year old and a 10-year old who were scolded for letting their kids play on a playground by themselves.
Cold hard data however is not that easy to find and when it’s available, it doesn’t always show what we expect. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which reached out to more than 9,000 students at 24 colleges and universities, found for instance that only 13 percent of college freshmen and 8 percent of seniors said a parent had frequently intervened to help them solve problems.(2) That’s a small minority.
There are no big studies done that show without a doubt that helicopter parenting is as common as we are being told. That doesn’t mean it isn’t—surely many anecdotes together show something—but it also doesn’t mean it is. They could be just that, incidents of over-concerned parents overstepping their boundaries.
Fact is however, that parents tend to be more involved in the lives of their kids and more protective than a few decades ago. That’s certainly the experience of the generation who is parenting kids right now—like me. I certainly see many differences in what’s expected of parents (both by schools and organizations, as by other parents) and what’s expected of kids compared to my own childhood. And I’m not the only one.
The Attention Gap
But here’s what’s interesting: there’s a big gap in the amount of attention parents pay to their kids, between college-educated parents and everybody else. Prior to 1995, college-educated moms averaged about 12 hours a week with their kids, compared to about 11 hours for less-educated moms. By 2007, though, the figure for less-educated moms had risen to nearly 16 hours while that for college-educated moms had soared all the way to 21 hours. Similar trends were observed for fathers: The time that college-educated dads spent with their kids rose from 5 to 10 hours, while for less-educated dads the increase was from around 4 hours to around 8 hours.(3)
The conclusion is that all parents spend more time with their kids, but higher educated household spend significantly more—and that gap is growing. Researcher Annette Lareau has identified clear differences in parenting across the socioeconomic spectrum. Among the poor and working-class families she studied, the focus of parenting was on “the accomplishment of natural growth.” In these families, “parents viewed children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they were provided with comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.”
College-educated parents have taken on a much more ambitious role – one that Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” “In these families, parents actively fostered and assessed their children’s talents, opinions, and skills. They made a deliberate and sustained effort to stimulate children’s development and to cultivate their cognitive and social skills.” (4)
The fact that there is now a four-billion-dollar tutoring industry in the United States, much of it serving elementary-school children, shows just how much parents are investing in the ‘concerted cultivation’ of their kids.
In conclusion: there are no hard data to quantify the phenomenon of over-parenting, but the data do suggests that it may be more prevalent amongst higher educated parents.
In the next post we’ll explore if all the buzz about the detrimental effects of this parenting style is true. Stay tuned!