Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
They have been called helicopter parents for a long time. These parents hover over their children in an attempt to ensure nothing bad ever happens to them. It all started with good intentions.
Little was ever said about children in the old days. They were to be seen and not heard and in some ways, as has also been true of women throughout much of recorded history, they were considered second-class citizens.
In fact, the very first case of child abuse in the U.S. was in New York around the turn of the 20th century. A social worker discovered what we would call today an abused child, but at the time, there were no laws prohibiting parents from abusing their children. There were, however, laws against mistreating animals -- even lobsters. This social worker went to court, had the child classified as an animal, and then pursued intervention against the child’s parent for cruelty to animals.
Even into the 1960s, abused children were not regularly helped because parenting was considered a private issue socially and by law enforcement as well. But by the 1980s, a huge shift in attention narrowed the focus of many societal ills in the direction of neglectful parents.
I don’t totally disagree, of course. That is why I’ve dedicated my career to helping abused children. The problem, however, is that the cultural role of parents became so focused on children that the pendulum has swung the other direction. Looking back at how I raised my kids, I realize I’m guilty myself.
I wasn’t a helicopter parent, exactly, but I was definitely what I’d call a compulsive parent. I scrutinized every decision based on what I knew about raising children and was fearful of making any mistakes. For example, I could probably count on one hand the number of soccer games and dance recitals I missed. I even felt compelled to attend practices and rehearsals.
I wanted to be an involved parent and wanted my children to know I cared about what was important to them. I went to every school awards presentation, parties throughout grade school and middle school, and every practice, recital, concert, or game. In retrospect, it wore me out. My compulsiveness was unnecessary.
Helicopter parents go beyond attending everything imaginable in an attempt to pacify their children. These parents are quick to intervene at school, often making excuses for their children’s irresponsible academic performance or social behavior. I even see this on the college level. One parent called me numerous times complaining about his son’s D in a course saying, “We don’t want a D; we want a B,” despite the fact that his offspring had barely earned a passing grade.
On the athletic field, helicopter parents insist on special treatment from their children's coaches, demanding equal play-time for their children, despite missed practices, irresponsible behavior on the team, or lack of ability. And at the end of the season, every kid gets a trophy, no matter how poorly the team played or how low the team placed in the standings. Such an approach isn’t based on reality and totally diminishes the meaning of “exceptional.”
When I talk with parents these days and see exhaustion, I also see myself. I tell them what I needed to hear back then.
Relax. Your children will not be in therapy when they are 40 years of age lamenting the one soccer game or chorus concert you missed. Their lives won’t crumble if they don’t get a trophy at the end of the season or if they get their feelings hurt now and then. That’s life and learning to manage it is a necessary adult skill.
What your children need from you is an effort that expresses your care for them. They don’t need to feel that life should always easy for them and that the world revolves exclusively around them. Families are more than the children. Individual needs, parental needs, and what is best for the family as a whole are all equally important.What your children will remember about you and their childhood is the preponderance of your interactions with them. Your children need to know they matter. That is true. But that isn’t demonstrated by attendance at athletic events or making excuses for their misbehavior at school. If you miss an event here or there, it won’t destroy them. Love them, but also teach them to manage life’s disappointments.