WHEN THEY FIRST TOOK FLIGHT a decade or so ago, helicopter parents made an easy target for criticism. After all, what kind of parent would call a college professor to dispute his child’s grade or submit a job application on her child’s behalf?
The picture became murkier, though, when academic researchers got involved. Depending on which study you read, the children of helicopter parents receive poorer grades in college, or they report better psychological adjustment, or they take more medications for anxiety and depression, or they have stronger relationships with their parents.
What to believe? How can you support your children—something Scout parents do especially well—without smothering them? To find out, we talked with two experts in the field: Laura Padilla-Walker, Ph.D., an associate professor in Brigham Young University’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, and Peter Love, Ph.D., an educator and professional learning-disabilities coach in East Hampton, Conn.
A Question of Balance
According to decades of research, parenting has three key dimensions:
- support shown to the child (acceptance, nurturance, etc.)
- behavioral control (supervision, consequences, etc.)
- autonomy granting (giving choices, involving the child in setting rules, etc.)
“How parents balance these three aspects of parenting really depends on the age of the child,” Padilla-Walker says. “When children are young, behavioral control is higher and autonomy lower.”
With college students, on the other hand, just the reverse should be true, with behavior control all but gone and autonomy very high. Middle- and high-school students fall somewhere in the middle.
The problem with helicopter parents is that they fail to make the shift, says Padilla-Walker.
Low Autonomy, High Anxiety
According to Love, anxiety keeps helicopter parents from ceding control and granting authority, and that anxiety gets communicated to the child. “If [helicoptering] is done from the parents’ anxiety, then that gets communicated to the kid,” he says.
In Love’s view, the meta-message—what parents are really saying when they talk to their kids—is at least as important as the words they use. “Is that meta-message ‘This may be tough, but I know you can handle it’ or is it ‘This is going to be tough, and I’m pretty sure you can’t handle it’?” he says.
A child who hears the former message may grow up to be successful, while a child who hears the latter message may become unsure of his abilities. “The extent to which you can feel like there’s a safe place in the universe is the extent to which you’re willing to take risks,” Love says.
The Best of Both Worlds
Fortunately, according to Padilla-Walker, parents can offer involvement and autonomy at the same time. “Rather than scheduling classes for the child, sit down with the child and schedule classes,” she says. “We call it ‘scaffolding’—holding them up when they need it and then gradually supporting them less and less as they become more capable.”
Communication is also important. “Talk to your child about what is expected of them and what your role can be,” she says. “Let them know you’re there to help, but that you cannot solve the problem for them.” For example, a parent could offer advice on dealing with a teacher without offering to call that teacher directly.
Love recommends asking a simple question when your kids are facing difficulties: “How can I help?” The meta-message behind that question is “You’re in charge. I’m trusting you to know yourself and your own needs,” he says. “It doesn’t preclude you as a parent making recommendations or suggestions, but you started from a place of respect and trust. That’s huge.”
Parents also need to pay attention to the meta-messages they’re receiving. “If your child is rolling her eyes or walking away when you’re trying to help, examine your behavior,” Padilla-Walker says. “And communicate with your child about it.”
Love agrees. “Just ask the question: ‘I’m sensing that you’re resenting my help here. Is it too much?’” he says.
And if your child says you’re helping too much? Love recommends focusing that extra energy on planning your “retirement” from parenting. “Do some planning so that when that separation does come, it’s a matter of some joy,” he says. “You should start preparing for retirement the day your kid is born.”