“A woman sitting opposite us in the food court was frowning at me, as she watched my petite, two year old granddaughter wander over to a vacant high chair, manoeuvring it into position, before climbing up to sit in it. I clearly read her lips as she murmured “Dangerous!” and gave me her best disapproving look. I smiled back at her. What she didn’t understand was my granddaughter's well developed dexterity, which she'd gained from climbing during regular, unstructured outdoor play time. Not only in playgrounds but in nature. She is a great climber and was at no great risk.”
Helicopter parenting refers to the hovering approach taken by parents who protectively supervising every little activity their child engages in.
Helicopter parents are ready to rescue and prevent any risk, in a parenting style which is a modern phenomenon. Compared to my own Australian free-range childhood in the 60s and 70s — and even that of my children in the 80s and 90s — this generation is much closeted.
Heightened awareness of danger at home and beyond, fed by a steady media stream, has helicopter parents taking risk minimisation to the extreme – and in some cases, with a zero-risk approach to life.
Although often observed in playgrounds, helicopter parents don’t stop controlling as their children grow – in fact, teenagers and young adults struggle for independence, with their parents over-involved in every aspect of their life, from arranging job interviews to applying for college.
As a new generation has come to maturity, US researchers have found the worst variation of helicopter parenting is when it's combined with a lack of parental warmth and bonding. This can lead to low self-esteem and increased risk-taking behaviour, like binge-drinking, smoking and theft.
The research, which examined the long-term effects of helicopter parenting on more than 400 undergraduates, was published in Emerging Adulthood, as a follow-up to 2012 findings that helicopter parenting makes kids less engaged in school.
“From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it,” study author Larry Nelson said. “Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative. Regardless of the form of control, it's harmful at this time period.”
From continuing to select you child’s outfit each day (long after she can do so herself) to intervening in every school-yard conflict, helicopter parents deny their children opportunities to problem solve and develop skills needed in later life. Their well-meant interference – often driven by personal anxieties – can lead to problems much worse than those they are trying to avoid. Therefore, addressing any deep rooted causes your own anxieties are of importance.
If you find yourself hovering already, or if you know you're already a helicopter parent, here are some ways to change your approach:
#1: Teach Rather Than Do
Day to day life skills are learned by repetition, so involve your child in his daily activities from the start. As he learns the skills he needs, gradually step back and let him perfect them. From getting dressed to packing a lunch box, even toddlers can be involved in making choices (without offering too many). You could ask, “Would you like to wear your blue shirt or your red one?” or “Would you like to pack up the blocks before we have a story, or afterwards?”
Empowering them with skills – personal care, time management and organisation – will not only free up your own time, but boost self-esteem and independence.
#2: Take A Breath and Count to Ten
Before you leap to the rescue, take a moment to truly assess the situation. When your child routinely calls for help without being in true physical danger, you don’t always need to physically step in. Try verbal reassurance, offer suggestions he could try, or otherwise support him to work through the problem himself. “What do you think you could do about X?” or, “What options can you think of to try?”
Whether it's putting his socks on or climbing high at the playground, he needs the confidence to look for a solution. Your automatic assistance means he will still face the same barrier next time, and wont move forward.
#3: Trade Your Helicopter For A Submarine
Learn to be more subtle when you supervise. Try sitting on a bench at the playground, rather than trail behind your pre-schooler pointing out the dangers. When he is working through a puzzle, rather than sit beside him popping pieces into place when he gets stuck, let him have some space and work it through.
As your toddler grows, begin to let her play in the backyard for gradually increasing periods of time, checking in now and then rather than constantly observing.
#4: Look Before You Leap
If your child is used to you stepping in at every hurdle, you are probably responding automatically to every call for help and constantly watching for physical cues of frustration. As you begin to allow him more independence and encourage problem-solving skills, you also need to break the cycle of call and response you have set in place. Sometimes, a reassuring reply is all he needs, rather than your immediate presence at his side.
#5: Nature Is Not Your Enemy
Parental fears are limiting children’s play opportunities, which could have long-term impact.
Environmental educator Narelle Debenham has worked with thousands of families and young people as an environmental educator. She is a strong advocate for the importance of spending time outdoors in the natural environment. She explains:
“Recreational options are very different for today's children. Parents feel this is due to the combination of the extensive range of indoor ‘play' choices now available, combined with the sense of ‘security' knowing that their children may be less exposed to ‘risks' if indoors. But children need daily doses of nature for healthy growth and development. A positive environmental ethic also develops from young people's regular contact with the natural world. We need to apply a ‘common sense' approach when it comes to balancing the protection of our children from ‘real' threats and providing vital opportunities for ‘nature play every day', the benefits for our youth far outweigh the risks!”
In fact, concern about children’s lack of free play outdoors is a growing concern. Books like Last Child In The Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv and No Fear: Growing Up In a Risk Averse Society by Tim Gill explore these issues further.
Protecting your child from danger is important – but teaching him to assess risk, solve problems and use his initiative are equally so. Letting go of the apron strings and accepting there will be accidents, disappointments, conflict and frustrations means you can be there to catch him when he falls, rather than preventing him ever falling.