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Understanding and Avoiding Helicopter Parenting

Nobody likes a helicopter parent, right? Most of us have heard the term used at some point, probably in a critical way, but what exactly is a “helicopter parent”? Before we dive into the details of helicopter parenting, we need to understand exactly what it means.

The first usage of the term appeared in the 1960s in Dr. Haim Ginott’s book, “Parents & Teenagers,” where teenagers described feeling like their parents hovered over them like helicopters. Dr. Ginott and others have subsequently defined helicopter parenting as any behavior by parents that involves taking an overly active or direct role in their children’s daily lives. Originally used to describe the behavior towards teenagers, helicopter parenting can show up at any age.

Helicopter parents might frequently call teachers or principals, assist with part ,or all, of their children’s homework, or interfere in their children’s playtime with friends in ways that are controlling, overprotective, and overbearing. While these actions may seem excessive to some, they usually come from a well-intentioned place.

Causes of Helicopter Parenting

There is no one specific cause of helicopter parenting, but, experts argue, misplaced concern for their children’s well-being is at the root of the issue. But anxiety is a significant factor. Parents who are anxious and feel like they lack control over their own lives may try to control their children’s lives instead. This misplaced concern can lead to over-involvement in every aspect of their child’s life. Another potential contributing factor is parents’ desire to compensate for their own past neglect. Parents who felt neglected as children may overcompensate by being omnipresent in their children’s lives. They may feel that their constant presence and intervention can fill the void they once felt. Lastly, fear of failure is another common cause. Parents may try to protect their children from failure, taking steps to ensure they never get bad grades or have negative interactions with their peers. They believe that by doing so, they are helping their children succeed but, in reality, they may be hindering their ability to handle setbacks.

Peer pressure also plays a role. Sometimes, parents see other parents taking an active role in their kids’ lives and feel like they have to do the same to “keep up.” Especially in a social media driven world, comparison is all too common. And it affects parents just as it affects kids. This societal pressure can lead to over-involvement as parents strive to match or exceed the level of engagement they perceive in others.

The Consequences of Helicopter Parenting

While being engaged and active as a parent has its benefits, there is a time and place for everything. Overbearing parents may protect their children from experiencing pain or disappointment in the short term, but facing challenges and, yes, occasionally failing, teaches kids valuable lessons about life. Students who are never challenged or allowed to fail struggle in various ways, and these struggles worsen over time.

One painfully obvious result of doing too much for a child is a lack of self-confidence. Parents may not mean it, but not letting children try things on their own teaches them that their parents don’t trust them or think they are capable. Ironically, this problem is self-justifying, as kids whose parents never let them feel independent are less capable of taking care of themselves. How can a student know how to do laundry or pack a lunch if they never had to?

Another negative result is that when things inevitably go wrong, students with helicopter parents often lack the coping skills to handle it. If a parent always made sure a child never had to clean up a mess or face disappointment, those children miss out on learning the coping skills that will get them through life. The inability to handle minor setbacks can lead to major issues later in life.

Ultimately, the most relevant consequences of helicopter parents for the purposes of this blog is dependence. At SAOTG, we equip students with the tools and systems necessary to thrive both within and beyond the classroom. Our ultimate goal is for students to no longer need our services. We want students to learn these crucial Executive Function skills so they can confidently and capably fight the challenges ahead. But all the tools in the world won’t help a child who doesn’t have the space to use them. Thus, a crucial aspect of our EF curriculum is structured freedom.

Balancing Structure and Freedom

There is another side to this coin, though. Some parents opt for a summer activities schedule that would put a Fortune 500 CEO’s calendar to shame. With standardized test prep, summer camps, family vacations, and resume-building commitments, many students remain just as overscheduled as they were during the school year. This can be pretty merciless for a student who powered through final exams with the dream of not setting an alarm during the first week of June. In a flash, June and July are over, and it’s time for back-to-school shopping once again. Without an opportunity to refresh and recharge, these students start the year off at a motivation trough rather than a crest. They’re just kids, after all, don’t they deserve a break – some time away from the structure and stress of a daily schedule?

As is the case with many perceived dichotomies, there’s a third option. There’s an entire spectrum of “third options” in the middle of the two extremes. Students don’t have to waste their days away in unstructured madness, nor do they need a meticulously scheduled summer calendar. There’s a balance to be struck, which walks the line between rest and enrichment. In short, it’s what we at Staying Ahead of the Game call for every year when the calendar turns to June: a summer of growth.

Embracing Unstructured Time

As a company committed to sharing the power of executive function through a research-backed EF curriculum and our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program, the summer months are peculiar. We continue to work with many students over the summer, but the topics change. With a reprieve from tests, projects, and other deadlines, we often encourage students to spot the opportunities to be proactive during the summer. For some, this means tackling learning gaps with carefully crafted review/preview work. For others, we focus on standardized test prep or admissions essays. Whatever the conduit, our unyielding focus on executive function remains. The opportunities for growth over the summer are too good to ignore, particularly in the EF department.

Organization and time management skills are truly put to the test when students have the time and freedom to plan their own days. Unfortunately, too few students have the opportunity to practice with unstructured time before they head off to college. Handling unstructured time is often what separates the wheat from the chaff at the university level. In essence, responsible use of freedom is perhaps the most important skill for adolescent students to master, yet they rarely get the opportunity to test the waters.

Many students follow a rigid schedule from August to May. They wake up at the appointed time and run through their pre-school routine before their first class begins. Then, students wander from class to class, governed by the pavlovian effect of the bell. After school, students often face a blur of scheduled extracurricular and athletic events until they get home, finish homework, and go to bed. It’s rigid and unyielding. There are only a few small windows to practice the crucial competencies we hold so dear, such as prioritization, impulse management, and focused versus diffused learning. When students matriculate from high school to college, many face an uphill battle to conquer the looming figure of unstructured time. In college, there are very few mandatory, scheduled events, and most of the learning is done outside of the formal classroom. Thus, volition, the power to choose, becomes a defining factor of many students’ college experiences.

Closing Thoughts

Summer provides a unique opportunity for growth not only in purely academic arenas (standardized test prep, conquering learning gaps, etc.) but also in the executive function department. In fact, the summer puts EF under a microscope in many ways. With great freedom comes great responsibility after all, so let’s see how your student handles that responsibility. To learn how to manage unstructured time, students need exposure. The moldable nature of the summer calendar provides the perfect opportunity to assess, practice, and enhance a student’s executive functioning skills. Give them the space to practice!

At the end of the day, helicopter parents want the best for their children. The goal is to help students develop into independent, responsible adults, which often involves parents learning to let go of the reins. Remember, students can achieve great things when they are allowed to grow and learn.

For more information about our programs and how we support students in developing independence and resilience, visit our Academic Coaching & Tutoring page.

Evan Weinberger

About SAOTG

Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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