As parents, we love our children, and we want them to do well.
The paradox is that sometimes these positive impulses end up weighing our kids down as they try to strike out on their own. Parents just can’t win.
So how can we tell when our natural desire to protect our children will deprive them of important lessons in resilience that will translate into valuable skills in the working world? How do we know when encouragement crosses the line into coddling?
To get closer to the crucial question of how to raise a child who is both balanced and self-reliant, compassionate and ambitious, we have to go back to the source of the problem.
Lots of researchers lay the blame for unemployable young adults on “helicopter parenting,” and they might just be onto something. Keyword: “might.” As in any act of parenting, we’re dealing with strong opinions, half-certainties, and a good deal of developing science.
Again, we just can’t win.
The term “helicopter parenting” has been thrown around in a remarkable range of contexts since at least 1967, when child psychologist Haim Ginott published a book called Between Parent and Teenager.
This book featured quotes from teenagers themselves, who said that their overprotective parents seemed to hover over them like a helicopter. Hence, “helicopter parenting.”
This term has taken on new relevance in the internet age, when new parents have access to article after article insisting that they’re making life so easy for their children that the kids are doomed to a rude awakening when they encounter the harsh realities of the working world. We read these stories and we worry.
The horror is that we may be right to worry.
Or we may not. Hey, no one said it was going to be easy.
Psychologist Anne Dunnewold, who prefers the term “overparenting,” told Parents that the label describes parents who are “involved in a child’s life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting.”
A seminal 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students with “over-controlling” parents were more depressed and less satisfied. The study concluded that helicopter parenting violated the “students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”
So helicopter parenting is bad. We get that.
How do we avoid spinning the rotors over our own families?
Research psychologist Dan Kindlon suggests that we need to let our children suffer—within reason, we hasten to add.
Note that we don’t have to contribute to that suffering—and that we must not. We just have to resist the temptation to step in every time our child encounters a difficulty.
“To be honest with themselves, to be empathetic, to take initiative, to delay gratification, to learn from failure and move on, to accept their flaws, and to face the consequences when they’ve done something wrong.”
As to how this is done, well, again: No one said it was going to be easy. That’s like the motto of all parenting ever.