“Hovering” or Helping: Reflections on Helicopter Parenting

Yes, I know these aren't helicopters...but hovering.... (photo by PML)

The term “helicopter parent” is a relatively new concept that refers to the “hovering” of parents over children in an over-protective manner.

It is also the fad “blaming the parent” device for the current generation.

As a former student affairs professional, I have seen the “helicopter parents” at work.  I know there are kids who go to college who still have mommy and daddy hiring them lawyers to get out of their MIP’s and getting their doctor uncles to write them an illegal handicap pass for the Mustang that the parents bought them for graduation.  I know there are parents who call up professors to complain about their adult(?) child’s grades (never mind the child hasn’t been to class the whole semester; they are paying money they get the degree, right?).  I have seen these kids operate from a sense of entitlement, and also total dysfunction.  After all, they were the kids who did no wrong, whose parents were always there to pick up the pieces, who never learned the lessons from their mistakes and expect everyone to fall in line with their needs.  I can tell you, those were the kids that I found to be more challenging to discipline than the kids barfing in the hall at 4 am or sneaking the beer in down their trousers.

But it seems that “helicopter parenting” is also being misapplied in many instances to the potential detriment of well-meaning parents and kids who need parental involvement.

Kids need boundaries.  Kids need security.  Kids need consistent rules.  Kids need loving, firm support.  Kids need encouragement.  Kids need advocates. Kids need teachers.  Kids need to see appropriate behavior modeled by others.

Most people would agree that all of the above statements are true.  So where does the hovering leave off and the parenting begin?

I am the mother of a 22 month old toddler.  I know I have a tendency to over-protect.  I have had some life experiences that have exposed me to the worst in people, as well as the best.  I know who is out there in the world, and I want my daughter, V, to be both open and wary, both trusting and cautious.  I want her to have the resources to stand up for herself, and also to know she has our support.  I want her to know she is loved unconditionally.  I want her to have the strength she will naturally acquire from life experiences, from trying and failing, from picking herself up when she falls. I also expect to be a teacher and a role model in her life.

So, I try to be a thoughtful parent about how I engage with V.   We want to foster independence in V; some of her new favorite phrases include “V do” and “do self.”  At 22 months, she can put on her own shoes; I let her struggle but she finally gets them on.  In fact, she often brings me mine (along with my hat and phone) to prepare for an outing. I tell her which end of a knife to touch and which edge is sharp.  If she grabs one, I want her to have some experience so she knows that she can hurt herself with it.  I gingerly touch her hands to hot  (not scalding) food saying, “hot” then let her check to see when it is cool enough to eat. We recite a little rhyme my Grandma taught me about how to cross the street safely. I give her as many choices as I can.  I talk to her about no-nos and why they are no-nos.  I tell her which actions may result in boo-boos. But she does stumble and bump and cry.  She spills.  She has wrecked toys and ripped pages.  She has had privileges taken away and has sat through time-outs.  She has faced natural consequences but she also has guidance, instruction, and support when she needs them.  We have taught her how to ask for help but we don’t always make it easy or take away the struggles.

V will be faced with choices in moments where I am not attending.  Though I keep an ever-watchful eye on her, even toddlers have moments where they can get into mischief.  I can’t control her every move, but I can teach her which actions are likely to have consequences.  I don’t expect her to make good choices in a vacuum, without ever having been taught the potential fallout, and just expecting her to learn EVERYTHING through experience alone. I teach, and I comfort her when she gets a boo-boo, and I am trying really hard to let her build her own unsteady block towers without interfering. This is my way of parenting:  giving her a strong foundation from which she can make choices with some advance knowledge of the potential consequences.  There is a balance to parenting; despite the zeitgeist, it’s not a “hands off” job, though it is sometimes a “step back” job.

What we do as parents with the consequences relates to “helicopter parenting” as well.  There are some mistakes that will follow our kids forever if we do not intervene.  For example, I am not going to let my 22 month old climb the monkey bars at the park before she is physically ready.  I will let her take a few steps or hold her hands or put my hands underneath her belly to quickly catch her when she falls.  She is not yet ready to discern which situations put her in physical danger and which are safe.  I teach her verbally as much as possible to prepare her for potential situations, but I also don’t let her fall and crack her skull.  But last park trip she was ready to go down the big slides on her own.  We started her slide journey by going down with her.  Then we rode the slide next to her and held hands.  Then we let her climb and waited for her at the bottom of the small slides.  For a while, she was so tiny, that the speed of the big slides would result in her bopping her head and nearly flying off as she went down; so we had to help.  Now she has conquered every slide at the park.  We are learning when to help with the sliding and when to step back.  But we know we aren’t perfect at making every parenting decision.  For us, it is trial and error as well.

Learning when to step back and let your child take the consequences seems to be one of the most difficult parenting challenges.  While knowing when a child is ready to go down a slide on her own is a fairly simple assessment, watching your child navigate a difficult romantic relationship, try and fail at an endeavor, have a legal encounter, make self-destructive choices, at what point do you stop intervening? It is so complicated trying to know when to step in and when to let experience be the teacher.  From a young parent’s perspective, but one who has been involved with kids of every age in some challenging situations, often it seems you can help when they’ll listen, and when they won’t listen, they have to face the music.  If they learn from their mistake, and need your help as they try to turn a situation around, each parent must wrestle with their own conscience to determine how best to proceed.  How much failure teaches a lesson vs. how much is scarring for life?  There is no magically researched formula for the experts to offer parents on this question and judgments will fly no matter what choices we make as parents. Ultimately, we have to live with the consequences of our parenting mistakes as well.

Perhaps those who want to reform “helicopter parents” should just let it be…after all, isn’t hovering over the hoverers a version of the same issue?  So many complex judgments are involved in parenting.  While it helps to have information and knowledge, we cannot control other individuals with that knowledge, we can only make that knowledge available and hope people (kids and adults alike) make good choices.  It’s up to parents to set the boundaries and to decide when to let go.

Linking up with Shell at Things I Can’t Say for Pour Your Heart Out.

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18 responses to ““Hovering” or Helping: Reflections on Helicopter Parenting

  • Kristin @ What She Said

    I think, as in many (if not most) parenting situations, knowing when to step in and when to step back is something you figure out as you go. To fret too much about it beforehand is to literally seek out unnecessary anxiety. Parenting isn’t an exact science; I really feel that it’s 75% winging it and 25% learning from your mistakes (and that may even be 50/50). So, I think knowing when to help and when to let go is a situational thing.

    And as someone who also works for a university, I’ve gotta admit… the parents that call me up wanting to know which scholarships their kids are eligible for really drives me batty. I want to scream, “Why isn’t your kid on the phone?!”

    • pmlevitt

      It isn’t an exact science; you are right. And parents aren’t perfect; we make mistakes. That is why the folks who are quick to label well-meaning parents as “hoverers” would do well to reflect on the times they’ve agonized over issues as a parent and then make their own imperfect decisions. Though, there are the extreme cases where parents just don’t want to let go when the kids are more than capable of handling a situation. Great example; I totally know that happens!

  • MEL

    Great post! I think we balance each other out pretty well. Though I do find it funny the things that we each choose to “hover” over!

  • pmlevitt

    yep, sometimes it is surprising:)

  • Dwija Borobia (@HouseUnseen)

    It sounds like you’re a thoughtful, caring, LOVING mother, not a helicopter parent at all! When they’re 22 months old, they *need* us to do more for them. I think if someone is still treating their 7 year old like a 22 month old that it gets into helicopter territory….and I have SEEN those parents. They’re out there, and their children do not have the self-confidence or the leadership skills that they will so badly need in life.

    • Pamela

      I’m not over worried about being one myself; though I do catch myself from time to time “over-doing.” It’s way too exciting to watch V gain independence. I have seen those parents too; these days, I’m just giving them a little more space to screw up, knowing that I’m not all-perfect, either:) Thanks for your thoughtful comments; I loved finding your blog today and look forward to reading more!

  • Tara R.

    If I keep stepping in to ‘fix’ problems, my kids would never learn how to think independently, never know how strong or smart they can be. Critical thinking is not something you can do for someone else.

    I want to be available if my kids need me, but watching them solve their own problems is incredible, watching them discover what they are capable of doing on their own is the best.

    • Pamela

      It is pretty great when your kid begins conquering new territory. It is a fine balance and there are no perfect answers, but I think, like you mentioned in your post today, that if kids know they have parents who love them, they’ll be ok in the end!

  • iseeyoulookingatme

    Wow! This is very thoughtful. I’m glad you have come to your own parenting style and choices. Everyone is different and it is a complex decision making process.

    I think the most important thing is to know your own child well, so that you will know what her or she needs.

  • Shell Things (@shellthings)

    Very interesting post.

    It’s a fine line between helping and hovering sometimes. I tend to think of hovering as doing things for the child (or being right on top of them) in situations where they actually can handle their surroundings. But, when they can’t. we need to be there.

    I will admit that I roll my eyes at a mom in the playgroup that I used to be in who always had a hand on her 5y/o son at the playground, even going down the slide with him. He didn’t have any issues that would cause him to need the assistance. Not that I think that she should be off on a bench not looking at what he was doing, but hers was a little extreme. And where I think people start talking about helicopter parenting.

    • Pamela

      It’s a fine line, that’s for sure! I know I’ve hovered and I’ve backed off; I’ve caught myself in the former and intentionally tried the latter. In any case, we all have to deal with the consequences of our own parenting styles in the future, right? I’m sure in retrospect, I’ll look back and have some insights where I might have done things differently. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and insights!

  • jdaniel4smom

    I think it is so important my son learns to take risks and try new things. I will be on the sidelines waiting to wipe of the tears and cheer him on.

  • Barbara Purica (@Footprints in the Sand)

    The hardest thing is trying to figure out when to help and when to let go. I catch myself hovering at times and controlling and I have to try and step back and let my son figure it out for himself.

  • Adrienne (@AdrienneSFTS)

    It’s so hard to find the boundary line between parenting too much and too little. This is a thought provoking post, and goes quite well with my day here at home with my teenage son. I don’t want to enable him to be dependent on me. I have to cut the strings and let him fall a little. Sigh…
    Stopped by from Shell’s PYHO. 🙂

    • Pamela

      Thanks Adrienne for stopping over. I feel for you. I have seen this struggle with many an adolescent and their parent and wow, it can be painful and challenging. I find it hard enough with a toddler. Best wishes to you and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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