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Why Helicopter Parenting Is The New Victorianism

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According to ourselves, modern Americans have cast off the ruffles, paternalism, and prudishness of the Victorians. We certainly wear less fabric on our bodies at any given time than they did. However, in at least one way our bosoms beat as one: our cultures are linked by the conviction that it is our job to make the world a better place by reforming the beliefs and behavior of the masses.

One peculiar way in which this desire to improve the world manifests is in the treatment of select groups from within society. The lives of upper and middle-class Victorian women—ladies who were sheltered, idealized, and expected to provide moral inspiration to their earthier male relatives—is generally seen as a relic of a bygone era. After all, we are so eager to reject patriarchal protection for women that feminists criticize efforts to teach women self-defense as part of rape prevention, and argue that bans against professor-student dating should be eliminated so (presumably, mostly female) students can learn useful life lessons about power and exploitation.

However, we too possess the urge to protect, elevate, and perhaps infantilize a segment of our population. What the stereotypical Victorians did to women is what stereotypical helicopter parents (or alarmist neighbors) do to children. Examining the similarities tells us at least as much about ourselves as it does the inhabitants of the nineteenth century.

Creating A Protected Sphere

In their mind, the Victorians belonged to a society finally advanced enough to give women a place of heretofore unobtainable safety and honor. A newly created class of ladies, no longer required to labor alongside their husbands in field and workshop, was able to experience a lifestyle that left their hands soft, their backs unbowed, and their daytime hours full of leisure. This lifestyle—a status symbol of sorts—provided a clear signal to the world that its possessors had risen to the growing ranks of the genteel.

Modern society also cherishes its shrinking violets.

By blooming within this protected sphere, the theory went, ladies were able to maintain a moral purity of mind. In fact, the popular, romantic vision of femininity, as seen in Victorian literature, is that of a beautiful, shrinking violet who exemplifies virtue through her own inability to cope with other peoples’ vice. Exposure to evil routinely leads to the Victorian heroine’s collapse. If evil does not seduce her, it is likely to kill her through a severe attack of nerves.

Modern society also cherishes its shrinking violets. The contemporary flowers in question are those individuals whom we do not yet deem adults. Children and adolescents are no longer required or allowed to labor alongside their parents. The modern schedule of school, sports, extracurricular activities, and media consumption is busy, of course; but these activities are not essential to survival. They can even be a way to turn one’s children into status symbols. A child born at the appropriate moment in his parents’ careers, dressed in suitably adorable clothes for Facebook photos, driven to correct educational activities, and admitted to a proper Ivy League school, is a child who demonstrates the genteel rank to which his parents belong.

Our children may know more about deviant sex than the average Victorian lady, but we guard other aspects of their development. From the best of motives, we urge teachers not to grade in red pen lest they wound the self-esteem of their pupils. We try to ban the word “bossy” lest girls lose their ability to lead. We speak as if young people will be damaged by anyone who either acknowledges or fails to acknowledge their cultural and racial background. We warn parents not to impose their will upon children with any kind of punishment, lest they damage their child’s ability to assert his own will against molesters, bullies, and friends. We treat our children’s psyches as fragile flowers.

A Need for Constant Supervision

Ladies of the Victorian period were cautioned against speaking too freely to strangers. One period advice manual informs the lady-traveler that she is allowed to accept assistance from a stranger, but, “Whether you accept or decline his attentions, avoid any advance towards acquaintanceship. If he sits near you and seems disposed to be impertinent, or obtrusive in his attentions or conversation, lower your veil and turn from him, either looking from the window or reading. A dignified, modest reserve is the surest way to repel impertinence.” The same volume warns, “Be careful not to be alone in the streets after night fall. It exposes you to insult.”

The assumption that the world was dangerous to a lady (or at least to a lady’s dignity) is not without a parallel today.

The assumption that the world was dangerous to a lady (or at least to a lady’s dignity) is not without a parallel today. The current generation of children is not allowed to travel alone to the store, the park, or the library. To do so might expose them to strangers and other dangers that are no longer palatable to our society. We prefer to assume they are incapable of safely playing outdoors, mowing lawns for pocket change, or walking home from a playground. We are happier to give them protection than empowerment.

Rejecting Societal Integration

Victorian rules of conversation were very different in the smoking room than in the parlor. Gentleman were not supposed to swear, use sexual innuendo, consort with dodgy characters, or discuss upsetting details in front of a lady. In return, the lady was supposed to refrain from meddling in men’s affairs. This attitude could be summed up as “admiration without integration.” Society’s admiration for womankind did not lead to teaching girls and young ladies how to manage their own finances, legal affairs, or even travel itineraries (the same advice manual cited earlier advised ladies to hand their male escort a lump sum of money big enough to cover all of the lady’s travel expenses, then to let him handle the details).

Thus, rather than teaching our children to enjoy a range of foods, we accept the notion that they require chicken nuggets and pizza.

It could be argued that nowadays, no matter how gifted we think our children are, we increasingly exclude them from adult society. It is not that we do not bring our children out to a wide range of public locations. It is that we largely assume our children are incapable of enjoying “grown-up” foods, manners, and activities. We import the nursery into the adult world, and thereby isolate our children in their own age-bound, cultural bubble (while making them potentially obnoxious to childless adults), instead of integrating them.

Thus, rather than teaching our children to enjoy a range of foods, we accept the notion that they require chicken nuggets and pizza. Instead of making attendance at restaurants a heady privilege dependent upon their most cultivated behavior, we place their potty chairs among our fellow diners. Often we do not even teach them the stock phrases of adult greeting and farewell that would allow them to appear mannerly and as fully human as any adult.

Why Do We Do This?

It is impossible to know how posterity will look back on early twenty-first century parenting practices, but it likely will not be with admiration. The desires to provide for one’s wife and shelter one’s children are both aspects of being human. Yet when this protectiveness exceeds historic norms and begins to infantilize its objects, one must ask why the protectors feel a need to control the lives of those they love.

Like Victorian husbands, we carry a heavy load.

The harassed helicopter mom whose offspring fall asleep in the car in between Mandarin lessons, ballet, and soccer is surely not racking up so many miles on her fuel-efficient vehicle because she always longed to be a taxi driver. The nervous dad who darts around the park, shouting at his kids for risking their eyeballs by picking up sticks, is probably not recreating the joys of his own childhood. Modern parents do not simply find parenting stressful. They make it stressful.

Like Victorian husbands, we carry a heavy load. Surely some of this burden originates in our prosperity. Despite recessions and economic ups-and-downs, we live in a time of material bounty. Food is so plentiful that we obsess about eating only the best (whether our definition of “best” is Paleo, organic, vegan, gluten-free, or some other permutation). In fact, the average American throws away nearly 400 pounds of food per year. Clothes are practically disposable. Smart phones are nearly universal. We often consider these luxuries to be basic amenities, but as a society we are also aware that children in the Third World go hungry. In addition, we are constantly reminded to recycle, reuse, and somehow handle our consumption in an ethical manner, lest we destroy the earth.

A life that is full of newly-invented, crazily abundant material goods leaves a mark on the psyche. It feeds the need to justify ourselves and our existence in our own eyes. It is linked to our need to make the world a better place.

On the Right Side of History?

Because our modern definition of goodness on earth is “happiness,” we are suckers for the belief that we can give our children happy lives. In fact, it is only through our children that we can enjoy the temporary illusion that we are actually creating a world that is truly good and truly happy. We cannot go out and eradicate pollution, poverty, prejudice, disease, warfare, racism, and death.

Yet despite such evidence, we seem unable to give up the addiction to parental and societal helicopters.

We can, however (or so we hope), ensure that no speeding vehicle, sexual predator, or water-borne bacteria touches our own kids. We can ward off disease in their bodies with the correct decisions about vaccinations and GMO-produced foods. We can guard their self-esteem by attacking any teacher or coach who criticizes them. We can prove that we deserve our prosperity by making the lives of our children safe and therefore happy.

Unfortunately, of course, our power as parents is far less invincible than we think. Witness the increase of mental disorders and depression among children and young people (blamed by some on helicopter parenting itself) and the increasing pessimism of each successive generation. Yet despite such evidence, we seem unable to give up the addiction to parental and societal helicopters.

We would be well-served by remembering that after the First World War, the children and grandchildren of the Victorians were eager to mock the ways of their ancestors. Nowadays, the Victorians are favorite whipping boys of history. Their era is a catchphrase used to describe foolish modesty, fussiness, and oppression. Some of this stereotyping is simply the unfairness of hostile historians. However, modern loathing of the Victorians is also a picture of what happens when a segment of the population is thrust into a protective bubble so that society can believe in its power to save and reform the world. The parents of today may not be, as the saying goes, “On the right side of history.”