Helicopter parenting cramps young-adult lives

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Helicopter parents sometimes attend classes, do homework and otherwise "help" their young adult children.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

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The helicopters are landing at universities: Parents who hover, coming down hard if they think something needs fixed in their young adult child's life. Administrators tell of parents attending classes, barging into roommate disputes, finishing term papers and otherwise "helping."

They hover elsewhere, too, from the workplace to the romance. Some parents call their children daily to make sure they get up in time for work. At age 26.

In severe cases, wags call such a hoverer a "Blackhawk." Experts warn that these "helopats," as they're also sometimes called, may deprive children of crucial decision-making, problem-solving and confidence-building skills they'll need.

Hovering is a parental skill honed over years by parents preoccupied with grades and the trappings of academic success, as opposed to learning. It's the mom who rushes to bring a child homework she left home, said Madeline Levine, a clinical Ph.D. psychologist and co-founder of Challenge Success at Stanford and author of "Teach Your Children Well." She tells of a student who can't find a class on campus and, instead of approaching someone or seeking a map, calls mom 3,000 miles away to find out where it is.

If you can't solve that problem, said Levine, "there are a whole bunch of far more important things you can't figure out." What will happen when someone says illicit drugs will help her study or when she's pressured to have sex? she asked. "Those are the kinds of challenges kids inevitably run into and have to navigate."

Warm, but smothering

The definition of helicopter parenting captures its contradictory nature: It features "high levels of warmth and support, as well as excessive limiting of autonomy that is not at all consistent with the age of the child," according to Brigham Young University School of Family Life professors Laura Padilla-Walker and Larry Nelson, whose new study confirms it's an actual parenting style with real ramifications. Helopats are like other overprotective parents — but the child is old enough to work, fight a war, start a family.

The BYU researchers defined it by such factors as a parent making important life decisions for the child, intervening to settle disputes or job and school issues, and searching for jobs or opportunities for their kids. It robs children of the chance to develop skills like decision-making and problem solving. The steps to autonomy and self-reliance come with practice hovered-over children have been denied, those life muscles never allowed to develop.

"Helicopter parents, our study suggests, are well-intentioned. But they lack promoting autonomy and wanting their children to make their own decisions. They are so worried their child will make a mistake or fail in some way that they overdo it and hover," said Padilla-Walker, an associate professor. "It is important at this age to step back to allow him to make some mistakes and to help when he asks you to."

Levine said children should cope with consequences of such things as forgotten homework while they're young. "He'll be unhappy. I kind of like that. The best thing teens learn is self-control and self-management. He'll figure out he needs to bring his homework. And he'll learn to deal with being unhappy."

Building a future adult

Developmental experts refer to "scaffolding," used in construction to support a building. As the building goes up, the scaffolding comes down. Parenting should be that way, too, they say. Helopats leave the scaffolding up.

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