It’s hard not to be a helicopter parent, isn’t it? My daughters are in their 30s and both are married with a child each but I still have a tendency to want to fix problems for them and protect them from danger or disaster. That’s natural – after all, if you love someone you don’t want them to suffer. And it’s sometimes also right. But not always.
What is helicopter parenting, exactly?
A helicopter parent hovers till they suspect that something bad might be about to happen – an injury, a mistake, a failure – and then they swoop, plucking their offspring out of harm’s way or sorting the harm before it happens. Of course, sometimes that’s right: you don’t want a one-year-old to learn to be careful on stairs by falling downstairs or to learn to be careful with strange dogs by being bitten by one. But keeping small children out of obvious danger isn’t helicoptering.
Helicoptering is solving or preventing too many problems or the wrong problems, or at the wrong times – specifically when the child is old enough to start learning good decision-making and good risk-taking.
The problems with helicopter parenting
- Your child doesn’t learn to look out for themselves and make good decisions
- Your child learns that someone will always do it for them
- Your child believes that they can’t do it themselves
- Your child learns that you don’t trust them to be able to do it
- Your child becomes averse to taking any risks, including the good ones, the ones that allow ambition
- You steal from your child the opportunity for success and pride
Perhaps you’ve dropped your child at school and when you get back home you see that they’ve left their PE kit. You need to get to your desk and start work but instead you take the PE kit to school. Your child has their PE kit in time so they don’t get told off or have to sit the class out, but doesn’t learn to take care next time they have PE. Your child learns nothing from this except that their problems will be solved by you.
Is this always the wrong thing to do? No.
- Perhaps your child is genuinely too young to take this responsibility – if so, you can start to model how we can remember to bring our PE kit to school. For example, you talk about and action how you remember what you have to take when you go out. Perhaps in the evening you and your child think about what you need to take tomorrow and you help them put it by the door ready; then when you’re about to leave the house you talk through “what do we each need to have?” Soon they’ll be doing it themselves – and feel proud. So, yes, with a very young child you might take their PE kit in when they forget it (because it was really you who forgot it) but you’d work on ways to teach them how to become able to do it themselves.
- Perhaps your child has a problem with planning and organisation (for example, perhaps they are dyslexic or dyspraxic) – if so, you need to start helping them with some strategies such as making lists; again, they will soon become able to make these lists themselves. Again, it might be fair to take their PE kit in but you’d still combine that with helping them find ways to do it themselves.
- Perhaps your child is under a lot of extra stress at the moment and their brain bandwidth is over-occupied – if so, you can be sympathetic and yes, you might take their PE kit in, but you’d help them understand that it’s OK to make mistakes when under pressure and see how they can look after their stress levels and function better.
Another example might involve revising for a test or exams – how much do you do all the planning, organisation and checking for them and how much do you let them work it out and make their own mistakes? Whose revision time-table is it? Similarly with learning words for a play or preparing an assembly presentation: can you avoid completely holding their hand and instead show them how to approach the task. But let them do it.
What about physical dangers? Parents understandably worry about bad things happening to their children when they’re out of sight. But a) bad things usually don’t b) bad things happen to adults, too and c) how will your child learn the good strategies for staying safe and thinking for themselves if they can’t practise? I’m not suggesting you thoughtlessly allow your child or teenager to do things that are obviously dangerous.
No, I’m suggesting that you try to be a safety-net rather than a helicopter.
Think about a safety net
In a circus, a safety-net is not there to prevent someone making a mistake and falling. It’s specifically there to allow someone to make a mistake safely, to fall without great danger. It allows the person to get it wrong and to pick themselves up and see why they fell. And then to have the courage to try again. And fail again if that’s what happens. Until they get it right. And feel that pride in their own success won with effort and determination.
(For many more insights into building resilient young people, have a look at my webinar, Boosting Teenage Resilience.)
In the PE kit example, you don’t bring the P kit in – you let them fall. But you are there for them, with sympathy. “Bad luck – it’s easy to forget but here’s how to make it less likely to happen again.” And then when they do remember their PE kit next time, you can praise them.
In the revising for a test/learning words/preparing a presentation situation, you don’t have to leave them to fall completely. You could make sure they know that there’s only X time left and that in practice that’s not long because they’ve also got A and B to do.” You could ask them if they need any help or if they definitely understand what they need to do. You could let them know that you’re happy to test them. You could help them set aside the right amount of time and make sure other family members don’t disturb them. Those are all relatively safety-net type actions. But don’t go further. Then, see how they go. And if they don’t do as well as they hoped this is when you’re real safety-net actions come in:
- First, you don’t condemn or make harsh judgements
- Instead you reflect what they themselves are thinking: that they could have done better
- And then you can help them work out what bits of what happened are things they could have affected. For example, if it’s simply that the questions were too hard or that someone else did better, there’s lees they can do than if they didn’t work hard enough, or eat well enough, or socialized too much, or wasted time, or didn’t have a plan, or didn’t ask for help, or didn’t practise hard enough.
- And then you help them see how they can change that for next time. You help them see that they can climb back up the ladder and do it again, better.
I wrote about this in the context of young people and screens.
Helicopter parenting is doing too much, stepping in too soon, not trusting. And it’s a negative form of parenting (even if understandable) because it robs your child of the chance to learn and the chance to feel proud. You don’t allow your child to grow strong and successful and confident.
Safety-net parenting is just stepping a little back so that you show your child the way but then let them learn how to find it themselves. You give them the map and compass but you don’t walk in front of them. You’re still there for them, just in a slightly different position.
And think how proud you’ll feel seeing them succeed and knowing that they did it, not you.
Safety-net parenting is a win-win – child and parent both benefit.
It’s a keystone to resilience
My book Be Resilient was written for young people but my advice for parents and teachers is simple:
- Safety-net not helicopter
- Let them see that you believe in them – if you don’t show that you think they can be strong and resilient, then they probably won’t be. “You can do this – I can help you at first but you will be able to do it. I don’t need to do it for you – you’re better than that.”
How will you step back and be that safety-net next time? It’s hard but you can do it – I believe in you!
Next time: I’ll be talking about “being the cabin crew” and how it affects resilience.
For more on building young people’s resilience, see my recorded webinar plus all the resources that come with it. There’s a discount for subscribers till end Jan – let me know if you’ve lost the code!