Time to Ground Helicopter Parents

At a dinner party recently, the discussion turned to the subject of overparenting. The consensus at the party was that this trend, characterized by helicopter parents – a term used for parents who hover too closely over their children ready to swoop in if anything even remotely “bad” happens – has gotten way out of hand.

There are endless examples – some humorous, some sad, some bewildering – of parents trying to resolve their child’s problems for them and irrationally overprotect them from failure and harm.

If we take an honest look at ourselves, I think it’s difficult to be a parent today and not find ourselves at least somewhere on this continuum. We have gotten to this point because of a combination of instantaneous news and peer pressure. Despite this, I consciously try to let my kids have normal childhood experiences away from me, but honestly, fear is never very far from the forefront of my emotions.

I loved that my son wanted to ride his bike to school but couldn’t help driving past the school on my way to work to make sure he had gotten there safely. And just the other night, he was supposed to be home from playing at a friend’s house by 5 p.m., but when he still hadn’t come in the door at 5:08, I started to get nervous. How many times was I late coming home from playing outside with my friends when I was a kid? Probably plenty.

It may not be desirable, but it’s normal for kids to occasionally lose track of time when they are engaged in play. However, we parents today are programmed to fear the worst when things like this happen, rather than feeling annoyed like our parents did that we were late. Instead of thinking, “Johnny is goofing off and missed his curfew,” we think, “Oh, my gosh, what if he was abducted by a child molester?!”

There is no rational reason that a generation of parents who grew up walking alone to school, having sleepovers, playing all over the neighborhood with friends, and making dinner should be forbidding their children from doing the same things. The difference is that our generation of parents is bombarded with dreadful news about child abductions and murders on 24/7 news outlets, and we focus on these horrific stories rather than on the millions of children who don’t have bad things happen to them.

The problem with overparenting is that the kids who are exposed to it end up without a sense of self. They grow up afraid to take risks and are unable to make decisions on their own. They lack coping skills because everything has been done for them by their anxious parents. Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry,” says, “10 is the new 2. We’re infantilizing our kids into incompetence.”

Skenazy says that being overly protective may seem perfectly sensible to parents bombarded by heartbreaking news stories about missing little girls and the predator next door. But too many parents, says Skenazy, have the math all wrong. There are no reports of a child ever being poisoned by a stranger handing out tainted Halloween candy, and the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million. When parents confront you with “How can you let [your child] go to the store alone?,” she suggests countering with “How can you let him visit your relatives?” (Some 80 percent of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives.) Or ride in the car with you? (More than 430,000 kids were injured in motor vehicles last year.) The way kids learn to be resourceful is by having to use their resources.”

It does not end with parents providing a safety net that is really more like a smothering blanket. Overparenting affects children’s ability to learn and solve problems by depriving them of the motivation to think for themselves and work through challenges. We fight our children’s little battles – at school, with friends. We jump in when we should hold back. We cannot tolerate even their momentary unhappiness, and so jump in with answers and guidance. We -and not they – solve their problems for them rather than giving them the opportunity to experience solving problems themselves.

In our quest to be perfect parents to our precious children, are we raising a generation of helpless people who have been stripped of their ability to function on their own in a challenging world? As Confucious said: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” This saying applies to us and our sons and daughters today.

Kathy Shapell has a master’s degree in special education. She is the director of the Augusta Levy Learning Center for autistic children in Wheeling and the mother of two children.