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.
"The issue is the maturity in a child," said Dr. Michael Finkelstein, who practices holistic, integrated medicine in Bedford, N.Y. "As children get older, they get more capable and need to be able to spread wings so they can fly on their own. Parents who inhibit this by solving problems and taking away initiative to learn by taking things over, enabling, entitling — they raise children who to some degree are incompetent. They create a state of prolonged dependency that could be lifelong. ... It sends a signal you're unable to do things on your own."
"We don't want parents to go too far the other way, though," said Nelson, associate professor. "So much of our work on parenting shows how important it is for parents to still be involved and be supportive. But not overly involved. ... We encourage parents to check in with their kids, but not check up on them."
Be a sounding board and guidance counselor, he advised. Then, "parents can express confidence in a child's ability to make the right decision."
Too often, said Levine, parents are "in" their children's lives constantly, checking grades, second-guessing or making decisions. "Can you imagine what it would be like to have someone access your life every minute of the day? Your spouse checking in on how you're doing at work? There are incredibly crazy consequences."
Skillful parenting includes worrying, Finkelstein noted. But it's controlling your own behavior, not the child, as you worry: "Hovering based in fear is not good." Parents should equip their kids to live in the world safely, not teach them the world is bad and to stay away.
Researchers say not all the effects of helicopter parenting are bad. Unlike behavioral and psychological control, which are both about a parent's wishes and well-being, helicopter parenting is about helping the child avoid life's pitfalls. That parent-child relationship is typically quite cordial.
"But the relationship is not as good as those where parents are warm, supportive and involved, but not overly involved," Nelson said.
The more parents "helicopter," the less students engage in school, the BYU research found. School engagement includes factors like completing homework and attending classes or being on time.
"There are not a ton of negative outcomes," said Padilla-Walker. "The studies, taken together, indicate perhaps helicopter parenting is kind of promoting a failure-to-launch mentality, but it is not necessarily leading to drug use, alcohol, other maladaptive behaviors."
Two other studies, she said, did find lower self-worth and more drug use. However, BYU didn't review those issues.
A 2007 study led by University of Indiana researchers found that kids with helopats had lower grades, though they were generally happy with college. According to the Washington Post, "The authors suggest that perhaps the reason some parents intervened was to support a student who was having academic difficulties." Other researchers recognize that possibility, too.
Whether parental involvement levels are good or bad may hinge on a grown child's perceptions, said a recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The researchers, led by University of Texas at Austin researchers, noted that intense parental support "may be beneficial to grown children in many circumstances," if they desire support. If it is seen as imposed, helicopter parenting is bad.
But overall, said lead researcher Karen L. Fingerman, of U.T. Austin, "Our data suggest that heavy or intense involvement is not bad for grown children." Except, she added, when parents believe their children need too much support. Those parents report less life satisfaction. Parental perceptions of their involvement matter for their well-being.
Loosening the grip
Some universities and colleges try to discourage hovering parents, even offering classes to parents on appropriate interaction with college-age children and guidance in "letting go."4 comments on this story
Barry Glassner, president of Portland's Lewis & Clark College, takes a different approach. "We encourage parents to be quite engaged with their children while at college, but constructive engagement instead of over-involvement. Instead of intervening on a child's behalf in ways they need to do themselves, help these now-young adults become engaged and take full advantage of the opportunities they have by being in college. This is a period of time in young people's lives when they develop into adults and that means you operate largely on your own and with other adults, not the way of your parents."
He suggests parent encourage their kids to move outside their comfort zones, to see and do new things, like attending plays or football games or other activities they might otherwise eschew.
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