Land Those Helicopters, Parents

Helicopter Parenting

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

Today’s quiz has no right or wrong answer—but it has only two possible responses: Would you rather be depressed at the country club or happy at the municipal golf course? Please answer that honestly, and keep your answer in mind as you read on…

Congratulations to every parent about to send a high-school graduate off to college this year. Good job! I’m sure that coveted acceptance took countless hours, not to mention the miles on the road or in the air, or all the pressure, work, effort, and preparation—for you. You’ve earned it! May your child flourish and continue to make you proud by meeting (and exceeding) all your expectations.

But I beg you, please, consider this: According to writers, psychologists, and academic counselors who know much more than I, parents who demand excellence and create the one and only road to “success” for their children are quite possibly doing a great deal of damage along the way. And by damage, I don’t mean their children are exhausted or going through a tormented period of adolescence. Far from it. I offer the following results from a study conducted by the American College Health Association in 2013:

They surveyed 100,000 college students from 153 different campuses (in all 50 states, including small liberal arts colleges and large research universities, religious, and nonreligious institutions, small to medium-sized to very large schools) about their health. At some point over the past 12 months:

  • 84.3 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do
  • 60.5 percent felt very sad
  • 57 percent felt very lonely
  • 51.3 percent felt overwhelming anxiety
  • 8 percent seriously considered suicide.

What the…what? Thirty-five years past my degree, I remember some anxious moments when the academic workload felt enormous, but these numbers are sobering.

“Very sad,” “very lonely,” “overwhelming anxiety,” and “seriously considering suicide?” Tragic. Adding to that, studies show a correlation between these feelings in young people and the overbearing involvement of parents who make decision after decision after decision for them, under the guise of “helping.”

It’s not helping. It’s paralyzing. It’s debilitating. It creates young people who have never confronted a conflict on their own. They’ve never resolved a challenge without formidable backup. They’ve never experienced a moment of failure—not one—and have no earthly idea how to comprehend the concept. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Plenty of articles and books offer information about the effects of helicopter parenting on young people.

For the women and men who navigated the long road of parenthood with grace and skill and checked off all of society’s boxes as their children became adults, I’m in awe of you. For the rest of us—no experts required; no more studies to quote—I offer this: Doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’ve taken a detour into unrecognizable places that never appear on the Parent Superhighway Map? And while we head down this unfamiliar and unwelcome “alternate route,” our young adults keep saying things like, “Just because you don’t recognize the road doesn’t mean it won’t come out on the other side!” They could be absolutely correct. Or not. That’s the problem. This particular detour could take us very far from the planned destination. Then what? They want us to accept it anyway, and have faith.

It isn’t easy to watch a young person you love more than life spurn your well-planned, time-tested path for their lives. In fact, it may be one of the hardest things a parent ever has to do. You may never stop questioning their route, but somewhere along the way, you may want to stop obsessing over it.

Here’s a tip I’ve found helpful at times like these to help me do just that: This isn’t about me.

The choices our children make will work or they won’t. If they work, those choices offer day-to-day life that has its “wabi-sabi” elements, and amidst its imperfections, feels mostly comfortable and rewarding. That’s fantastic. If they don’t, they will leave the kids feeling frustrated, anxious, and troubled. At that point, their choices may need re-thinking, and maybe different ones get made (perhaps painfully, perhaps with some measure of chagrin.) But if you’ve raised someone with even a modicum of “executive function” (another skill depleted by helicopter parenting), he or she will figure out what to do and how to confront any challenges that may emerge as a result of the decisions he or she has made. And bonus: That’s a very good thing—for the child, for you, and for society as a whole.

So I’m back to my original question: The country club or the public course—this time for your child? Suppose everything goes according to plan and your children achieve the success you imagine for them…but that journey to the top leaves them unhappy and unfulfilled. At this point, the question for you has to be, “Did I really do a ‘good job’?”

I’d rather be part of a small group of parents who admit they have almost no idea what they’re doing (but do it anyway, despite their uncertainty) than a horde of parents who claim they do—and march forward without a moment of doubt. I also need to work on embracing (well, at least accepting) those unanticipated detours along the way.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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5 Responses to Land Those Helicopters, Parents

  1. Melissa July 24, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    Spot on, Renee! I never was nor will I ever be a helicopter parent. Of course, I’ll always be there to support my kids, but not try to direct their lives. Am I happy with the choices my kids have made? Not always, but as you said, it’s not about me. I’d like to think I have raised two kind hearted, independent, free thinking, hard working kids. I’ll proudly take the public course. As always, thank you for your humor and insight!

  2. renee July 24, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    Thank you so much, Melissa. Deep down, I think there are more of us than we think. Parents who are watching (anxiously, but still..) our children “become” and in our more enlightened moments, celebrating the people they are, just as you did in your description above. Like you, my helicopter never even took off, much less hovered. I’m pretty sure that was the right choice…..
    Thanks again for your support!

  3. Ro Mentesana Woodring July 25, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    Right on! But the truth is, it starts so much earlier. Parents need to teach children how to start making good decisions for themselves when they’re young. Give them 2 or 3 acceptable options then talk about why they made the choice. By the time they’re ready to leave for college, parents won’t need to helicopter because they’ll know they’ve taught their children how to make good decisions. Parents will always be there to help when their children need to run by a difficult choice, but, in most cases need to let them make some mistakes. Mistakes teach a lot!

  4. Heather Uczynski July 25, 2015 at 11:59 am #


  5. renee July 27, 2015 at 8:08 am #

    Thanks for the support, Ro and Heather. It’s always a balance between support and smothering. But definitely agree – we do our children no favors by taking care of everything for them. And the earlier we start teaching this life skill, the better! Very good point, Ro.

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