Children these days live in worlds that are highly structured and overscheduled. Whether it is playdates, schoolwork, clubs, sports, or volunteer work, life gets busy very quickly and parents become full-time administrative assistants to make sure everything gets done. Well-meaning parents can take over many aspects of their children’s lives because the intent is to keep their children “on course”. This makes sense in theory, but in the long run, it does not help children learn the skills they need to be successful as adults. These skills include organization, delayed gratification, autonomy/responsibility, initiative, accepting disappointment, and reformulating a plan.
So what does it mean to be a “helicopter parent”? In short, it means that the parent is overly involved in the child’s life; the parent does not let the child learn from their mistakes or from normal childhood experiences. For example, they may take on their child’s school projects, argues with teachers/professors about grades, and choose their child’s college.
There are certainly times when it makes sense for parents to take control of situations and monitor them closely, especially in cases of safety or age-appropriateness. Obviously, the first time you let your child drive a car by himself, you would have some rules and limits around that activity. Or when children have a cell phone for the first time, you would have some boundaries regarding when or where they can use their phones. For younger children, you would monitor them getting used to doing chores around the house.
For situations that don’t necessarily fall in those categories, here are some specific examples of ways to not be a helicopter parent, but “stay in the airport”:
- Fostering self-esteem. Make it clear that you love and value your child, even when he/she has misbehaved (“I’m very disappointed in what you’ve done, but I still love you very much.” “That homework looks challenging, but I am proud of you for doing your best.”). Model good self-esteem and healthy habits for your child.
- Self-regulation. It can be tempting to jump in and fix situations, but children find it most helpful when parents listen, validate their concerns, and offer assistance only when needed and in a way that the child will find helpful (“Those kids were really mean. It’s natural you would feel embarrassed about what they said. Is there something that I can do?”)
- Delayed gratification. Teach your children the value of time and money, the satisfaction of achieving something through hard work, and the importance of planning ahead. Some practical examples include:
- When you child wants to meet friends at the mall, don’t drop everything to be the chauffeur. Ask your child to schedule things in advance with you.
- For activities (sports or otherwise), ask your child to choose carefully and stick with the activity for the duration to keep their word.
- When buying clothes or toys, consider asking your child to “pay” a portion of the item from his allowance, time doing chores, or from their salary if they are old enough to work.
- Social skills. The transition from elementary school to middle school (and from middle to high school) can be challenging when it comes to making sure that your child is socializing with positive individuals and making positive choices. To give your child the opportunity to make their own choices, parents and children benefit from having regular conversations about their friend group. Parents also get great clues about concerns this way.
- Know the names of your child’s friends.
- Listen to the stories that they tell you about their friends (even when you would rather listen to anything else).
- Ask your child what they enjoy about their individual friends (“You talk about Kaitlin every day, what do you like about her? What do you dislike about her?”).
If your child is socializing with someone who isn’t making good choices, it’s important to find out what is drawing your child closer to that person. Sometimes kids start hanging out with someone because that person seems to get attention, even when it is negative. Sometimes kids start hanging out with someone because they feel like they belong and fit in with a group, even when it is negative. In these cases – as tempting as it may be to forbid your child from associating with someone – let your child make the decision so they can learn from the consequences. When parents make the decision, children don’t learn the skill of decision-making. It is also important for children to understand the definition of “friend,” which is another great conversation for parents to have with kids. One way of doing this (without it being too much like a counseling session) is to watch one of your child’s favorite TV shows together then ask them which relationships are positive and why, and which ones are negative and why. Remember, you’ve been teaching your child positive values since they were young. As they get older, this is the time you get to see if they were listening or if they need some refresher courses on what they have learned.
It is important to remember that changes may not be immediately apparent, so be patient. Changes take time. Negative behavior may escalate in the short term as your child may try to see if they can persuade you to give in. Stay firm and consistent and before you know it, you will see responsible and independent young individuals right before your eyes. And maybe you will get to go on a beach vacation with that helicopter that you won’t have to use anymore.
– Tobi Russell LPC, CAADC, CCS-M, BCETS, is director of a counseling service in Rochester Hills, Mich.