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?


The Unending Vortex of Helicopter Parenting

Publication1Helicopter parenting is here to stay. It has taken hold of society in such a way that there may be no going back. Psychologists are now calling 25 the new entrance to adulthood. For many different reasons, adult children continue (or come back) to live with their parents. College professors and administrators are reporting that students are arriving on college campuses less prepared for independent living than prior generations. Why? Fingers are pointing at parents.

It has become a common lament that parents are hovering over their children, doing for them things that their children should be doing themselves. I argue that although this is in some cases true, that we have become a society that encourages such behavior.

I have noticed a shift over the past decade. Many parents are much more involved in their children’s lives and those who are not are treated as if they are neglecting their children.

I guess I was living under a rock, but I was surprised to learn that not only were parents nagging their teens to complete things such as college applications, they were actually completing the applications themselves!  Now I have no issue with proofreading, or even editing an essay, or acting as a sounding board for ideas, but how can a parent take things this far? Setting aside the fact that you are cheating your child out of the opportunity to learn how to handle such tasks on his or her own (after all, they will have job applications in their future), you are teaching them that it is okay to cheat!

I know the intentions are good. Parents want their children to do well, to get into a good school, to get a good job. They may regret decisions they made in their youth and not want their children to mimic their own mistakes.  But the efforts are short-sighted. If they are doing so much for their child to get into college, how will their child be able to handle the rigors of college? Then there is the trickle-down effect. Parents who may not be inclined to do as much feel like they have to, or their child will be left behind.

Recently I heard that that some parents are taking steps to counteract this lack of preparedness for their children in college. I have seen multiple reports from colleges about increased involvement among parents. Parents call professors, complain about grades and even go to class to take notes when their child is ill. Here too, I think some level of assistance is acceptable. My children have asked me to read over papers and give comments before turning them in (they know the value in using available resources). Provided they give me enough notice (11 pm calls for proofreading will be ignored), I am happy to read and give input, which they are then free to accept or reject. (Yes, my comments have been rejected.) But doing someone’s work for them is cheating, and undermines their confidence in their ability to do it on their own.

How did we get here? I think it started when this generation was young. For the past couple decades, parents, not children, have been planning playdates and activities to keep children entertained, to advance their education, to give them an edge over the competition. As a result, many kids never learned to occupy themselves or even how to engage someone in conversation. To be fair, this often came from a place of love. Parents believed they were protecting their children, that the outside world was a dangerous, scary place. Twenty years ago, children would go to a friend’s house to see if they could play. Today, a child (or anyone for that matter) knocking on a door is seen as suspicious.

The overprotectiveness has gotten to a point that I think is ridiculous. The fact that parents are being forced to defend themselves against charges of child endangerment for allowing their children to play at a neighborhood playground demonstrates the societal tightening of reins. Parents who can’t or won’t be over-involved in their children’s lives are facing the very real possibility that their children may be left behind. It has always been true that making noise gets attention, but now it almost seems that it is necessary to make noise just to be seen.

This creates a problem for parents who want to foster independence in their children. Despite the fact that hands-off parents are applauded by school staff and administrators, those who are very much hands-on are accommodated and it seems, almost encouraged by those same people who complain about the lengths some parents will go to help their own kids get ahead. The idea that “This is just the way the world is today” is unacceptable to me. I want it to be different, but am not sure how to affect change, or even if I can.

I am thankful that I made it through the early years before the madness took effect and that I was confident enough to maintain my “old school” beliefs. I do, however, worry about how my children will manage parenting if this trend continues. Even the business world has seen a change in recent hires and is offering special training in interacting with the new generation of workers. I find this all baffling, but think there may be hope. I am seeing a rebellion of sorts: terms like “free range parenting” and articles lamenting the effect “helicoptering” is having on young adults indicate that there is indeed a problem here.  Until there is a societal change, I guess I’ll just keep on shaking my head.