Recently, while waiting to board my flight, I overheard a loud conversation between two middle age people on the subject of parenting. One of the two worried that her actions on behalf of her high school-aged son would assuredly be viewed as heavy handed by his football coach. The woman acknowledged that, yes, maybe she had gone too far, but in her mind something needed to be done. As far as I could gather, the issue was playing time, and the coach's preference for other players. In the same breath, the woman declared that she was no “helicopter mom”. For point of emphasis, she gestured the quote sign with her hands. The other woman, clearly a longtime confidant, responded by barely controlling her laughter and saying, “You're kidding, right? You are so a helicopter mom!” I was amused.
“Helicopter parent” entered our lexicon a few decades ago. While it is a gender neutral term, moms get most of the bad press. Type the word pairing into your Google search engine and you will immediately be presented the definition, “a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.” It’s not a particularly flattering term. The internet is alive with memes of the so-called helicopter parent, all but arriving by attack aircraft, Flight of the Valkyries blaring over loud speakers. The cult sketch comedy Portlandia produced a particularly amusing and disconcerting episode on the subject entitled, “Ban the Bag”. The words have graced the cover of books and national periodicals. It’s the subject of investigative journalism, academic research, internet snark, and coffee table disagreement.
Unfortunately, the term has come to represent a constellation of behaviors great and small, excessive and appropriate. This is certainly true in education circles all over the Western Hemisphere, from elementary school to university. If we are fair, we must distinguish between being proactive as a parent, and being so invested in one’s child that it may actually stunt social, emotional, and intellectual maturation, and impair their ability to be resilient in the face of adversity.
Let us not romanticize parenting a generation or two in the past. Back then, kids were left on their own a little too much. As far as schools were concerned, their students were usually guilty until proven innocent. The ugliest varieties of bullying and discrimination were far too commonplace, and readily dismissed as something best left to kids to work out. So too physical violence. “Problem children”, if not shown to the door, were ignored and neglected.
Our problem today is that the pendulum has swung so far the other way. We cannot save our children from their childhood, from slights and tears and mistakes and failures. The real world awaits, and a little resiliency goes a long way. Hara Estroff Marano, in her provocative book, A Nation of Wimps, contends, “Hyper-attendance to childhood falsely breeds a sense of control and erroneously endows every action of the child with an importance it does not have. It also violates the cardinal rule of development: attentive and responsive care to an infant is absolutely necessary, but there comes a point when it is oppressive, robbing children of the very thing they need for continued growth...Buried in over-attachment and over-involvement is an assumption of fragility, the belief that by not having some nuance of need met, the child will be irrevocably harmed.”
All of media is telling us that to deny our children anything, to leave them to tears and the torments of normal childhood development, is not only bad parenting, but downright abusive. I believe this is simply untrue. Social media, the WhatsApps and the like, exacerbate the problem, spreading misinformation as often as critical communication, and instigating a 24/7 competition between parents to prove they are the most responsive and attuned to their children. There are indeed blessings in skinned knees and B minuses, as author Wendy Mogel contends. Helen Keller knew a thing or two about overcoming adversity in childhood. She concludes, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” These words are so very true. Universities now contend with young adults so shielded from adversity and discomfort in their childhoods that they are wholly unprepared to address social strife, personal rejection, and academic and professional disappointment.
If you've gotten this far and are wondering if your well-intended supports are actually counterproductive, consider the following. For untold generations, Aboriginal children in Australia went out into the wilderness to learn to fend for themselves, for months at a time, as early as age ten. In North America, Native American children went on Vision Quests and engaged in a number of difficult rites of passage in preparation for adulthood. For most of human history, children tended animals, assisted their parents in the field, and participated in important trades as apprentices. Each year, I have the distinct pleasure of leading some of your children into the wilds of the world, where they learn to deal with adversity in lasting ways. They walk out on the same two feet on which they walked into the back country. Our children are much stronger and far more capable than we often assume. They are not fragile unless we make them so. Theirs is the inheritance of untold generations of grit and determination that led to our being the apex species of our planet.
So that we're clear, you always have the right to intercede as a parent. The real question is should you? If you sense a potentially negative trend in your child's life, obviously you need to explore it further. Be cautioned though, because we are pattern-seeking animals, prone to see them when and wherever we go looking. Furthermore, don't parachute into a perceived war zone, fists clenched, ready to fight. Seek first to understand. This is especially true when other people's children are involved. Resist the temptation to fix things for your children. Ask them what they might do, how they think they might best solve their problems. Ask them to consider what they will do if they can't solve their problem, say another child doesn't want to be their friend, or that particular subject or teacher just isn't their favorite? Most importantly, hold them accountable for their choices. They'll be okay. Plus, you’ll save on jet fuel.
See you around campus.