Put that helicopter back in the hangar and let your children find their own way. Their independence will likely surprise you
by Judith Locke
is a clinical psychologist. She delivers sessions on child wellbeing to parents and teachers in schools across Australasia. She is the author of The Bonsai Child (2015).
Edited by Christian Jarrett
It was an unusual parental request for therapy. The mother and father to an eight-year-old child told me that all appeared to be going well now, but that they were worried about their parenting approach and what might happen to their child over the years. Could I, a clinical psychologist, see their child every six months to reassure them that she was flourishing appropriately and not showing any signs of anxiety or depression? I was fascinated – the sessions they desired appeared to be the psychological equivalent of a car service.
Though the specific request was unusual, the concern motivating it was familiar to me. I find increasing numbers of parents terrified of getting their parenting ‘wrong’, fearful that their child might suffer, or experience a challenge that harms their child’s future wellbeing.
It’s no surprise that the clichéd first question of the psychiatrist or psychologist is about a client’s childhood. It’s now well-established that early life experiences can have a lasting effect on current and future wellbeing, and this includes the manner in which a child is parented. Countless studies have supported the value of particular parenting actions and approaches over others. For instance, parents being emotionally responsive, establishing clear rules, offering praise, being involved in home studies, being supportive of a child’s autonomy, and spending more quality time with their children have been associated with various beneficial outcomes, including for children’s self-esteem, self-reliance, sense of security, academic success and peer relationships.
The dissemination of this research from scholarly journals to the general population has been remarkably effective, with many parents putting more effort and time into parenting activities than they did 50 years ago. But the risk is that some adopt these practices to an extreme that ends up being unhelpful for their child.
In his book The Optimistic Child (2011), the American psychologist Martin Seligman discusses the negative consequences of overdoing ‘good’ parenting actions. He hypothesised that when parents focus too much on improving children’s good feelings, through giving plentiful glib praise, regardless of effort, it stops children from performing feats that have a greater likelihood of building genuine self-respect. It is only when given the chance to overcome challenges that children should earn appropriate recognition for their efforts.
Since then, scholars have coined terms such as ‘helicopter parenting’ and ‘overparenting’ to describe a type of parenting that involves an excess of care, including being overly protective, not letting the child make their own decisions, over-the-top affection, and holding overly high academic and social expectations for the child. This parenting approach has been associated with harmful consequences for children at the time and later in their lives, including increased anxiety, poorer leadership skills and creativity, increased narcissism, reduced self-regulation skills, increased alcohol use, poorer life satisfaction and reduced distress tolerance.
Overparenting is a well-intentioned approach and this can make it difficult to see the harm that it’s doing. Like other ostensibly altruistic actions with inadvertent harmful results, we are less inclined to question the merits of overparenting because, on the surface, the aims seem positive. Parental interventions such as helping teens with their homework, freeing children from any chores (so that they can enjoy their childhood), or querying a teacher’s judgment when children’s results are disappointing, can appear to be good and loving choices. In reality, however, they risk thwarting children’s independence, confidence and skill.
What makes the long-term risks of overparenting actions particularly insidious is that there can be benefits in the short term. For example, when a child expresses a reluctance to participate in a school swimming carnival and a parent allows them to avoid it, this might well prompt an immediate improvement in the child’s mood. But repeated too often, the same or similar scenarios raise the risk of the child developing long-term issues with facing challenges. Likewise, consider parents who consistently remind their teenage daughter to do her schoolwork. She will likely continue to do well at school but, if the situation never changes, she won’t ever face the consequences of her own disorganisation, nor have the opportunity to learn self-regulation and personal motivation. Unfortunately, overparenting is reinforced by its welcome short-term effects. It can be counterintuitive for loving parents to insist that an uneasy child participate in the race, or to permit a teen to forget her homework and temporarily do badly at school.
So, what’s a parent to do? How can you comfortably trust your choices if what feels right is often wrong? Perhaps the idea of a six-month psychological child check-up doesn’t sound so foolish.
But I didn’t end up agreeing to see those parents’ child. Instead, I asked the parents to come back, and provided a session where I told them to aim for different goals in their parenting. I encouraged them not to focus purely on ensuring their child was always happy and successful in the here and now, but rather to develop in her the five skills that will be helpful in the long term: resilience, self-regulation, resourcefulness, respect and responsibility. I explained that focusing on these abilities would give their daughter a much better chance of thriving in the future, regardless of any challenges she might face. Here’s why.
With resilience, your children will have the capability to bounce back from challenging circumstances and overcome difficulties, no matter what situation they might face now or in the future. Resilience gives them the confidence to face the world on a daily basis because they believe that they’ll manage regardless of what happens. This will enable them to live more interesting lives and accomplish more, uncowed by fear of failure or difficulty.
Parental overprotection reduces children’s ability to develop resilience, because it deprives them of the opportunity to learn to cope with the discomfort or occasional awkwardness that they might feel when stretching themselves in the pursuit of a goal. Cossetted children will start to narrow their lives and do only activities in which they’re assured of success and stay in complete control of their immediate environment.
You can enhance your children’s resilience by allowing them to face age-appropriate challenges. I suggest starting small with this, such as by not immediately stepping in when they’re faced with slightly frustrating results. For instance, let them continue with their efforts of stacking the blocks or tying their shoelaces, even when they encounter initial difficulties. At the same time, be sure to praise your children for their genuine efforts and persistence. When they succeed, this will help them understand the qualities that enabled them to overcome a challenge or learn a new skill. Noting their resilience in the face of tricky tasks will also encourage your children to believe that they have the required strength to face future trials.
With greater self-regulation, your children will be better able to resist doing something immediately pleasant, in pursuit of a greater future goal – such as finishing their homework in the afternoon rather than flopping in front of Netflix; resisting buying sweets on the way home from school, so that they can save for a new Nintendo game; or working hard on practising their skateboarding moves to master new tricks, despite occasional tumbles and failures.
Pretty much everything good in life – successful careers, businesses, relationships, creative endeavours – depends on the self-regulation that’s involved in sustaining the ‘slow cook’, rather than succumbing to the lure of immediate gratification. If you always ensure your children are happy and successful in the here and now, they won’t get the chance to discover the value of sometimes ignoring their current preferences or temporary moods for their future benefit.
There are a couple of ways to develop your children’s self-regulation skills. Set up consistency in the three Rs: rules, routines and repercussions. Establish a few ground rules and predictable routines for your children to follow, such as morning habits of getting up, having breakfast and getting dressed in their school clothes before they play with their toys. Consistent and calm consequences help too. Your children will be less likely to push the boundaries if they know that ignoring an instruction means they’ll lose some type of privilege, even if only momentarily. Over time, resist the temptation to always remind them of their responsibilities. In the long term, their internal motivation will be a more effective incentive than your reminders acting like an external ‘alarm clock’ that always rings for them.
Resourcefulness describes your children’s ability to adjust their actions to suit the current situation. It involves more than being resilient to changed circumstances. Resourceful children are able to adapt their behaviours and respond appropriately to an altered situation. It depends on finding solutions in the midst of chaos, choosing to focus on ways to cope rather than looking for someone to blame or sinking into victimhood.
If you use your own resourcefulness to solve your children’s problems, they won’t get the chance to learn how to adapt. You risk setting yourself as the solver and your children might continue to look to you for resolutions, even at an age when they should be solving situations themselves. Indeed, the term helicopter parenting was popularised when university staff noticed parents continuing to hover and solve their university-aged children’s problems, such as calling lecturers to request extra time for their child to complete an assignment, or seeking to hire a nanny to cook and clean for their university-aged child. When children aren’t required to pivot, even in adulthood, then they’ll never learn how to adjust and cope and will be more adversely affected by the inevitable challenges that come their way.
Developing your children’s resourcefulness is fairly simple – stop solving their problems for them. Start by allowing your children to face a few more age-appropriate challenges each year, such as asking the waiter where the bathroom is rather than asking for them, or encourage them to talk to their teacher about where their essay went wrong, rather than stepping in to enquire for them. You could also prompt them to do more problem-solving for themselves at home, such as when they argue with their siblings over the TV or computer. Another strategy is to role-play hypotheticals – for example, ask them what they’d do if they ever forgot their school lunch.
Respect is essential for fitting in with wider society. Although typically associated with giving appropriate regard to authority figures and following social conventions at home and at school, teaching children respect goes beyond that to considering other people’s rights and feelings.
If you consistently make your children believe that they are the most important people in the room, they won’t develop respect and the ability to fit in to a range of environments. Manipulating situations to allow your children to win or triumph means that they won’t learn to be comfortable when others shine. This will harm them in the long run, making them less attractive options as team members or work colleagues.
When a child is born, the family has to totally adjust to the child’s needs, but slowly, over time, the child needs to learn to adapt to being part of the team and fit in with everyone. Thus, it’s essential to start building your children’s respect for other’s needs and encourage them not to expect to be the centre of attention all of the time during their younger years. Teach your children to take turns in games, listen to others at the dinner table as well as speaking, and cooperate over the use of scarce resources, such as sharing the TV with their siblings, or not insisting on getting the last piece of cake or pizza. Praise them when they show these skills and be careful not to give too much attention to any obnoxious, attention-seeking behaviours that they exhibit.
Responsibility is an extension of respect and involves your children doing things that benefit the people around them and society in general. It could be minor activities, such as speaking at a soft volume in a public place, or letting an older person take their seat on the bus. It means being accountable for the mistakes that you make, and owning up and making amends when you do the wrong thing.
When you prioritise your children’s rights over their responsibilities, you prevent them from learning the skill of accountability and from experiencing the wellbeing benefits of contributing to society. Remind your children that there is equal, if not more, happiness in what they do for others than in what others do for them.
One of the most effective ways of teaching your children responsibility is to give them chores from a young age. Children as young as three can help set the table and feel like they’re contributing members of the family. The earlier you start this, the more your children will accept that they need to contribute to the family through acts of service. Encourage their motivation by linking their rights, such as screen time and pocket money, to their responsibilities, such as doing regular chores. Other ways to help develop your children’s sense of responsibility include: inviting them to donate some of their pocket money or possessions to charities; offering them the chance to be solely responsible for a pet’s needs (assuming that they’re old enough); giving them the chance to help your neighbours; and giving them opportunities to do volunteer work.
Of course, not all children are born with the same temperament. Some are naturally more independent and capable than others. But just because your child might appear to lack skills, it doesn’t mean that you should step in more to make up the perceived shortfall. Clinically, I find that when parents attach labels to their children at an early age, they can almost become self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, if parents tag one child as lazier than their sibling, they will often then remind this child of her responsibilities much more than the more ‘organised’ sibling. Over time, this makes the ‘lazy’ child even less likely to develop self-regulation and a sense of responsibility, while her sibling becomes more and more prepared. Likewise, a child tagged as ‘confident’ might face a lot more challenges without parental assistance, thus developing her resilience, whereas her sibling labelled ‘shy’ is overprotected and overhelped, with the result that his independence is curtailed even more.
To counteract this, try to avoid labelling your children as having certain traits too early in their development. Resist your tendencies to simplify their personalities, and try not to tell them what you have judged to be their ‘natural’ personality. Be aware that every time you step in and help them, your actions risk letting them know what you think of their capabilities, in turn making them feel even less able to face challenges.
Another issue to be aware of is that your own attempts to contribute to your children’s autonomy and skills could be usurped by others’ well-intentioned, but harmful, actions. Anecdotally, I’ve heard reports that some teachers and schools are overdoing helping children and not allowing them to face challenges, for example, by offering to amend report cards so as not to discourage or hurt them with lower marks (possibly at the insistence of parents).
Mothers and fathers who overparent also have expectations of the school that can be counterproductive. Educational psychologists consider adult daily involvement in high-school children’s homework to be developmentally inappropriate. Yet my own study of hundreds of parents in Brisbane found that those who endorsed overparenting practices also tended to expect their teenager’s teachers to take more responsibility for their teen doing their homework, and were more inclined to perceive their teen as lacking sufficient support. This expectation might be the reason for the reported increases in ‘academic entitlement’ – students’ belief that they should receive good grades and that teachers or lecturers are primarily responsible for their success or failure when learning.
To counter these cultural influences, you might need to be the voice of reason in your children’s school community by encouraging the school and its teachers to continue to set appropriate demands and challenges for students. Resist the temptation to ensure your children are always in their preferred class, such as the one with their best friend or favourite teacher – this could help them learn how to cope with temporary challenges and develop the social skills of making new friends or learning how to cope with a different style of teaching.
Smoothing the way through ‘lawnmower parenting’ serves to make your children ready for smooth roads only. Constant hovering around your children only makes them even more reliant on your presence. As the person who loves them most, don’t ask yourself what you can do to help your children every day, but what you can do to help them help themselves. That’s a parenting action that will truly prepare them for the bumps, twists and turns of the life journeys stretching ahead of them.
The Greater Good magazine from the University of California, Berkley has research-based, short parenting videos with useful and practical tips.
I wrote an article for The Parents Website addressing the problems of children being allowed to choose their school classes based on friendship groups or preferred teachers. I also offered practical strategies for how you can help your children cope when their class placement isn’t what they wanted.
In this recent episode of the Life Education Parenting Podcast I talked about helping children back into school routines following the COVID-19 lockdown, and gave practical tips to help them out of their comfort zone and make them feel that they can cope with future challenges.
This BBC Worklife article describes recent research findings that suggest that helicopter parenting can adversely affect the development of children’s leadership skills.
The Bonsai Child: Why Modern Parenting Limits Children’s Potential and Practical Strategies to Turn It Around (2015). In this book, I describe why modern parents are encouraged to give children perfect childhoods devoid of challenges, and why this might inadvertently reduce children’s confidence and capabilities. I follow up with practical strategies to ensure that parents are sufficiently caring and demanding of their children in order to help them reach their potential.
In her seminal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), the American psychologist Carol Dweck describes how to tailor praise to help children get into a growth mindset. But beware of Dweck’s warning against overdoing praise on nonexistent effort and causing just as many problems.
One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance (2005). The American writer and philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers and the American psychiatrist Sally Satel ask us to question the assumption of frailty, overuse of the term trauma, and sometimes excessive therapeutic help, which the authors posit make children weaker not stronger.