Don’t Blame Parents, We’re Living in a Helicopter Society

an empty helicopter cockpit as viewed from in frontHelicopter Parents are blamed for stifling the growth of their children and creating a generation of young adults who struggle to deal with everyday tasks, resulting in the need for actual classes in “How to Adult.” I would argue that it’s not that simple. Parents alone are not to blame. We are living in a helicopter society. Families are not autonomous, especially not when both parents hold full-time jobs and rely on community supports to help care for their children.

People complain about how today’s children are unable to entertain themselves, that parents are overinvolved and families are overscheduled. This is all true, but what is the cause? Yes, parents often make all these plans, but families don’t exist in a vacuum. Some get caught up in the ripple effect. It is nearly impossible today to not overschedule your children when that’s exactly what other parents do. While children can sometimes engage in solitary play, it is not reasonable or healthy to ask them to always play solo. When their kids’ friends have things planned out weeks in advance, parents learn they need to do the same or find ways to occupy the kids themselves.  Even teens capable of making their own plans often need help to implement them, most often transportation.

Though all generations have faced criticism for their parenting styles, the current trend favors greater, almost constant supervision of children. Parents who allow their children the freedom to make their own decisions and learn lessons in a natural (cause and effect) way are criticized or even charged with child neglect. Many children don’t learn to be independent because they aren’t allowed to be independent. When simply leaving home unsupervised is seen as a danger, it is no wonder so many young adults have no idea what to do when they first set out on their own.

Not allowing kids to learn organically robs them of the confidence of knowing they can accomplish things on their own.  Years of having been told exactly what they need to do to get the “A” stifles creativity. Too many young adults have not learned effective problem-solving skills. What used to be a normal byproduct of education has become something that needs to be explicitly taught.

Change is always a constant, but the educational system of today is vastly different from the one I grew up in. In fact, things changed dramatically between my oldest and youngest, with only ten years between them. Things have gotten worse instead of better.

In some ways, more is demanded of students, especially in the younger years. Just 20 years ago kindergarten was for learning social skills and practicing motor skills. Today’s kindergarteners are pushed to learn to read and do math. Then, ironically, when they get to the hard stuff, they are coddled. Teachers hand out notes rather than teaching note-taking skills; they provide lists of resources rather than teaching students where to find information; students are sometimes given actual test questions in pre-test reviews. (This is not meant as a criticism of teachers. Today’s emphasis on testing, plus the additional learning that goes with advances in technology, leaves no time to teach these skills.) As interaction between teaching professionals is often limited to others who work with the same age level, many teachers are unaware of what or how their students have learned in the past. It is no wonder that college students are needy, nor that professors are baffled at the needs of those walking in their classrooms.

Parent portals that allow parents to see grades on a daily basis unnecessarily insert parents into the educational system. Many teachers expect parents to check the portal regularly; the parents who do not are seen as uninvolved and disinterested. The expectation is that parents will notice that Johnny hasn’t turned in this week’s assignments and will discipline accordingly, then look ahead and remind him about the project listed in the portal that is due next Tuesday. Some go so far as to require a signature affirming that Johnny’s homework has been checked each night. Parents desperate for their children to not fall behind may be tempted to “help” or even complete the assignments themselves.

This takes ownership away from kids. It is the students who should be held accountable for completing work and earning grades, not the parents. What happens when the student goes away to college? Students accustomed to receiving help or even the daily “Have you finished your homework?” may flounder, not knowing where or how to start.  This may contribute to the rising mental health crisis seen at so many colleges today. The problem is compounded as students don’t reach their potential: in college, there are no parent portals, no teacher conferences, and no emails to indicate there is a problem, so when the work doesn’t get done, everyone is surprised when the failing grades arrive.

Parents want to protect their children, but all this scheduled, pre-planned activity has created a generation that struggles to find its own identity. Real life doesn’t come with a syllabus, and there is no online scorecard to keep you aware of your progress.

While many complain, they ignore the fact that we have all become lazy and complacent.  Today it is common for people (including grown adults) to expect reminders of their commitments. Even a meeting regularly scheduled for the second Tuesday of each month can be forgotten or assumed cancelled when an email notification isn’t sent the day before. If grown adults can’t manage to show up at a scheduled meeting without a reminder, how can we expect our youth to do so?