The cicadas are mostly gone, but when they find the shell of one, clinging still to the bark on the maple tree near the playground at the end of our street, my girl plucks it off and chases her playmates.
There are leaves to throw now and branches bearing less color; climbing legs and grasping hands clapping crisp autumn air. There are cuts and scrapes and day-old bruises and a glorious amount of immeasurable achievement.
We are often there, at our neighborhood playground, climbing the brightly painted, twisting, towering metal. The children mount slides and fling themselves back down, perpetually precarious. There are races and rocks, mud and mulch. Soaring swings and wild, scattered shrieks.
There we are, too. We mothers are on tightropes, balancing the need to intervene and instruct with the importance of allowing self-governance amongst our little ones. Attempting, as best we can, to not tip the scales, to guide and glory in the incredible evolution of young minds.
An Overplayed Media Mania
Mainstream media would have you think we are nearly incapable of escaping the helicopter parent. It is a nearly manic cry supported by a litany of texts. Articles and anecdotes published by the tens of millions saturate the Internet.
What may have begun as a serious study of parent-affected youth behavior has turned, it would seem, a stereotype into some sort of unsteady truth. There is a convenient conviction in the clamor, some sort of heady agreement that parents in our country, particularly those sitting on the middle-class and upward rungs of the social ladder, are too involved, too deliberate in plotting a course for their children, too heavy-handed in daily intervention.
If millennials are ill-equipped to manage post-secondary and adult lives, then the fault must lie with an overabundance of parenting, experts say. An article published recently in Psychology Today cited helicopter parenting as part of a set of issues that contribute to an overly sensitive young adult population.
Young adult oversensitivity is a marked shift in college culture. The author of “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges” relayed mounting concerns among college counselors, administrators, and professors over the emotional fragility of current college students. Students cannot handle failure, or even mediocre marks, they say. They rely on parent guidance and counseling more than any previous generation.
A recent Washington Post article speaks more of the same. In the article, former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims excoriates the negative impact of perpetually present parents who shelter their children from hardship and failure. She links depression and other mental health issues to this trending type of over-parenting.
Redefining a Parent’s Role
This solitary phrase—“helicopter parent”—seems to define a parenting problem. It presents a tidy explanation for a failure of parent-child relationships in our country.
There is vast room for rebuttal. The term “helicopter parent” over-generalizes a broad range of parenting styles and minimizes the great amount of consideration and care and decision-making involved in parenting. It paints the American parent as a gregarious meddler, comparing our parent population to those in other countries while not taking into account our vastly varying infrastructure and education systems.
This term ignores the obvious fact that more than half of our nation’s children, from a very early age, spend more of their waking hours separated from their parents than with them. This trend began during the early years of those Americans now in their college years. A variety of caregivers, in a variety of settings, are helping raise America’s children.
Where do parents compensate for that loss of time with their children? It is sensible to surmise that a lengthy separation between a parent and child each day leaves them feeling pressed each day to define their role within the very small together time available, to make action more deliberate, to guide and direct as intentionally and intensely as possible.
Parents are no doubt instrumental in determining a child’s future. We affect the great outcomes. But to blame over-involved parenting as the defining factor in a loss of resiliency undermines the great need we have for more parent involvement.
The Benefits of a Present Parent
To blame a lack of resiliency on a culture of coddling ignores a growing body of excellent evidence underlining the importance of engaged parenting, particularly in early childhood.
Through a series of longitudinal studies, Stanford psychologists found that parents who engaged in more regular communication with their toddlers caused faster language learning and vocabulary growth. Although the findings showed wide gaps between socioeconomic groups, some parents bucked the trend, showing substantial language learning in their children despite a low-income background, thanks to active communication.
Stanford professor Eric Bettinger found that children had higher academic achievement in later years when a parent stayed home with them into childhood. Other recent studies have recommended starting children in school closer to age seven to lengthen a child’s home-based learning and stability.
An engaged parent can personalize play, guide learning, and provide children and young adults with a wide range of personal freedoms while discovering and navigating great potential.
Child-Oriented Institutions Need Work, Too
Parents are influential caregivers, but in considering the state of our children, one cannot ignore the institutions that play a large role in determining their future.
Our education system is largely involved in preparing children for their postsecondary studies and the professional world. But it is not achieving even modest success. A report published by ACT in 2015 showed that most American graduates were not prepared to handle college-level coursework. In fact, only 61 percent of ACT-tested graduates were prepared for college-level work in English. In mathematics, ACT found 40 percent of public-school graduates were prepared. In science, that number was 36 percent.
An accumulation of adult mistakes has redefined American education. Standards shaped by assessments have prodded educators and schools to focus on tests in an unprecedented way. Values, character-building, and life skills are less present in our public education system, and there is a decided disconnect between parents and educators.
School-age children may face an increase of hovering parents. When children are removed from their parents’ care for a good portion of each day, yet fail to learn what is necessary for college and a career, we must pay more attention to the caregivers who help shoulder the responsibility of making kids succeed or fail.
Research shows that students who are raised and educated by their parents through home education are highly successful in their postsecondary studies. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, studies show that homeschoolers who go on to college outperform their peers.
Some politicians have recognized the value of parent-driven education and have passed legislation to better allocate funds. Education savings accounts re-direct a portion of a student’s public funding into an account parents can use to form a personalized education track. Much success is expected from these programs.
Let’s Reinforce Parents, Not Criticize Them
Parenting is an art, not a science. The helicopter parent hysteria undermines that art, erroneously transferring the effects of social, education, cultural, and political shifts onto those most present. No doubt, parents bear great responsibility and are rather imperfect, but we also can transform our children in ways that common culture cannot.
We are the great harbingers of social evolution. We carry on or fail to relay faith, justice, and charity. We represent community and courteousness and are poised, as parents, to awaken our children’s passions and understand their persons.
We provide an abundance of knowledge, experience, and stability for the great experiment of childhood. We are present in a fundamentally crucial sort of proximity, a good sort of hover.
On the playground, at least, we do not solve all disagreements and we do not grapple with determining a child’s play. But we are present, and we provide guidance when it is sought. On the playground, at least, there is an abundance of loping legs and laughter, and a great shortage of helicopters.
The helicopter parent mania proclaims that parents must step back and give space for growth while minimizing direction. As children emerge into adulthood, they will at some level be defined by the persons or circumstances that have directed them. To maintain the flawed argument that parents should not be that ultimate guide allows the rest of the world to even more faultily supersede our responsibility to and joy in our own children.
Two years ago a friend of mine edited her husband’s first novel. Michael Anderson’s “Provoke Not the Children” describes a daunting dystopia where parents are no longer considered adequate at raising children. Instead, at a young age, the children are turned over to child-rearing professionals. What a strange, disjointed world it appears to be.