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9 Things We Don’t Discuss About Helicopter Parenting But Should


Helicopter parenting articles tend to analyze the same question: Is it good for children? Such question rehash is not a problem of parenting analysis. It is endemic to New Media. Writers start buzzing about a topic, hitting the same highlights and pointing out the same problems. Helicopter parenting just provides an great example of the rehash with a flourish of unintended irony. We are so worried about smothering our kids, that we limit our helicopter parenting discussions to effects on the kids.

There are many more questions about helicopter parenting beyond how it hampers children’s ability to mature into responsible adults. As perhaps the dominant contemporary parenting it affects other children, as Jen Doverspike mentioned here a few weeks ago. It affects parents and society as a whole. These are a few seldom seen helicopter parenting discussions:

Why do moms helicopter more than dads?

In society’s PC piety and in an effort to get men more involved in childrearing by using gender neutral childrearing terms, we miss or gloss over the fact that helicopter parenting entangles women more than men. The dads that get labeled helicopter parent often hover over specific areas of interest such as physical safety, grades, or athletics, while the moms tend to hover over everything. (While searching for a survey or study that tracked with my own observation, the dad specific hovering links I found mostly involved UFO sightings.)

Not only is helicopter parenting so time intensive that this lopsided adoption of the style might play a huge role in any workplace equality discussion, but also, figuring out why women do it more than men might provide clues for solving it.

A related analysis for further insight: Do liberal parents hover more than conservative parents? It is a potentially illuminating topic, and one which I’ve not seen discussed since Christie Mellor complained about feeling like a Tool of the Right during her publicity tour for her helicopter parenting resistance book, The Three Martini Playdate.

Helicopter parenting, the return of the Feminine Mystique with a vengeance

Feminists have noticed the intensity of modern motherhood. See, for example, The Madness of Modern Motherhood by Erica Jong in the Wall Street Journal in 2010 or Judith Voight’s 2005 book Perfect Madness. Feminist critique, however, typically treats this mother madness as a product of culture like the feminine mystique named in the early 60’s. These critiques seldom make the connection to feminism’s role in creating our culture. In fact, they usually go out of their way to plead caution against blaming feminism for any current shortcomings. (For the ranks of independent and powerful women the movement claims, I find it odd that feminism accepts the role of passive receiver of cultural dictates.)

But feminism shaped the world we live in now, for better and for worse. The “feminine mystique” that inspired the title of the iconic book was the cultural assumption that a woman must be a wife and mother first. Betty Friedan is credited with busting this assumption and launching the Second Wave of feminism. But she oversold the feminist position by comparing domestic life to slavery and paid work to liberation. Later, when women rediscovered a desire for hearth and home, domesticity had little perceived value left, and so motherhood became the brave rebel stand or the redemptive quest. As if children weren’t a draw enough.

With such primal fuel, many moms throw themselves completely into motherhood. Modern mothers seek the many activities, early academic achievement, and homework supervision of the hovering styles because those form a motherhood that looks and feels nothing like the life of June Cleaver. We hover because we see the value of being with our children but don’t want others to see us as the prisoner in the comfortable concentration camp that Friedan described.

It is motherhood, full throttle. The original feminine mystique didn’t have this kind of force. It was standards imposed on women by society, but helicoptering standards, we women impose them on ourselves, for the sake of our children. The Motherhood Mystique has and will continue to prove much more stubborn than its predecessor.

Helicopter parenting and economic inequality

Economic inequality is largely a marriage gap. There are, of course, many causes for unmarried, single parent households, but I do wonder: how much does child-centered parenting contribute to divorce and, thereby, economic inequality?

Furthermore, how much does child-centered parenting exacerbate the problems of economic inequality. Helicopter parenting is a “luxury” only for those who can either afford to have a one income household or hire a nanny to hover over the children. Therefore, it is often dismissed as a problem of privilege. (The MORE article of the last link is notable for not dismissing the problem.) True, it is a problem of privilege, but fair or not, privileged families set a standard for parenting. Helicopter parenting at the very least highlights inequality for families who cannot do all the activities, show up every week at school, or do their children’s homework.

Helicopter parenting, or any fad parenting really, is a perfectly reasonable parenting stage stuck on repeat

Parents must hover over curious, input seeking missiles that are 18-month-olds. But so many fad theories–and goodness help us for the believability of an April Fool’s recipe for sleep-deprivation insanity, “Twilight Parenting”—-assume that what works at 6 months or 6 years or 16 years works forever.

The same could be said of many parenting styles. Baby wearing of Attachment Parenting makes great sense for young infants. Sleep training and scheduling of Baby Wise can lead to failure to thrive in young infants but is quite sensible for older infants. But we tend to pick one theory and cling to it—and police others about it. Why?

The effect of helicopter parenting, the playground years

Most commentary about helicopter kids looks at their performance in the classroom or as they become, or really struggle to become, responsible adults. But the effects are first noticeable much earlier. The kids who had all of their toddler squabbles negotiated by well meaning moms have few negotiation skills come kindergarten.

The teacher can’t deal with every argument over who gets the red crayon next. Nor does she have time to do all of the squabble prevention prep that these moms often do, such as making sure there is a new red crayon available for every child. With no tolerance for frustration, these kids act out and melt down, like a toddler. Sometimes they act out by hitting or biting, which both physically affects other kids and makes the problem worse as the offender gets increasingly isolated by kids, teachers, and other parents.  I’ve often wondered how many ADHD diagnoses actually show a child who has a two year old’s tolerance for frustration.

The isolating effect of child-centered motherhood

Helicopter moms get lonely. Catering to the specific needs of each child doesn’t leave time for much else. Date nights are rare because babysitters don’t do bedtime right which messes up balance for days. There is little chance for friendship beyond the play date, which typically is conversations about children anyway. Then as the eldest ages and “gets involved”, mom and younger children lose play dates because the helicopter mom assumes she has to be at the play date and the activity. Unable to do everything, she and the children end up in the car or at some organized activity. Mom socialization happens on the sidelines or at birthday parties—if the kids are behaving and if she’s not in charge of something. Then, mom does more kid activities to avoid confronting loneliness. And the problem festers.

The shunning of free range mothers and their children

I run a free range household, but this does not mean my kids have the childhood my husband and I had. These days, other kids aren’t usually available to play. They have activities. Or sometimes their siblings have activities. (When plotting carpool routes, play dates get bumped first.)

Worse, I’ve had to field questions from my children about why some of their friends aren’t allowed at our house in the rare spare time they do have. Helicopter moms make a quick grapevine. They warn each other about free range avoidance.

For the most part this problem solves itself. Helicopter kids are often difficult to have for play dates. Everything from tattling to food aversions are more prevalent in children raised in the helicopter style. But the shunning was a bit upsetting to my children when we first moved back to the States from a non-helicopter dominated country and school. And I don’t relish being that mom who overhears a mom telling her daughter in no uncertain terms that she could not come over to our house as it wasn’t safe. We managed to find our niche, but helicopter parenting is an obstacle to creating the neighborhood village that mothers often claim to want.

Delayed helicopter parenting as guilt management for working moms

Not all helicopter moms start out as helicopter moms. Elite educated moms tend to believe that kids require intensive mother attention during their school years when they have homework and enrichment activities. (See, for example, the “It’s possible if you sequence it right” section of Ann Marie Slaughter’s famous Atlantic article.) These moms hire various othercarers for kids when the work is time intensive but, by reputation, mindless and assumedly unnoticed by the kids.

But the kids certainly notice and moms often feel guilty. And so, when school time comes, do these moms see an opportunity to make up for earlier guilt by getting hyper involved when and children are out of the house for over 6 hours a day? Is it coincidence that these moms define necessary mom time as the stage with hours that correspond most closely to the workday?

Now before anyone tears into me in the comments for such an obnoxious theory, I am not being idly provocative. Avoidance of the tough questions about why we hover over children exposes women to the whim of guilt. Fact is, feminism has yet to make peace with motherhood, and the longer we ignore the pull of motherhood and the needs of children, the longer we will leave mothers at guilt’s mercy, which has made career planning quite difficult.

Knowing that intensive mothering will happen, when is it best to engage in intensive mothering?  When does it serve mothers and when does it serve children? When do they overlap and why? When women can better predict the pull of family, then we can better plan for it and avoid the rampant self-sabatoge of promising careers at their height.

The way out

The original hovering backlash book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, has an updated 25th anniversary edition that is already 10 years old. Elkind’s follow up, The Power of Play, came out in 2007. John Rosemond has a shelf worth of books with cheesy titles that are detailed how-tos for avoiding hovering. There are also lighter reads like Confessions of a Slacker Mom, or my personal favorite, The Three Martini Playdate. A new book from the UK, Parenting Culture Studies might cover some of the topic listed above. Free-Range Kids is a book and popular website loaded with articles and testimony. New studies like this fascinating one from New Zealand on playground rules come out and then seem to disappear after their initial internet rounds.

The information is there. If helicopter parenting is as dreadful as the latest articles say, if it sabotages the very successes it is supposed to ensure, then why don’t the posts mention the ways out? What is so scary about turning away from hovering? What do we seek in hovering over our children?

To solve the problems of helicopter parenting, we need to look beyond the question of children’s outcomes and engage in the tough discussions we would rather ignore.