I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the consequences of helicopter parenting on young people currently graduating from college and university. From everything I’ve observed, everyone I’ve spoken to and everything I’ve read, it’s clear that over-protecting and coddling our kids is not doing these young people any favours.
In a 2015 interview in the LA Times, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” discusses the helicopter parenting that she’s witnessed first-hand as the former first dean of freshmen at Stanford University. She sees this phenomenon most often in “middle-to upper-middle-class families and beyond, with disposable time and money. Working-class, blue-collar, poor families — parents there don’t have the wherewithal to be cultivating their kids’ childhood. They’re worried about fundamental things like food and shelter.”
Lythcott-Haim says, “our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job. Period. We’re not meant to parent them for the duration of their lives or ours. Our job is to ensure they have the skills, the confidence to fend for themselves. We will always love them, but the most loving thing is to prepare them for adulthood rather than pretend that we will always be there to resolve things for them.”
It’s essential to nurture our kids but these days, too many children are being coddled. Lythcott-Haims complains that parents “are often so concerned about academic performance and enrichment that we absolve kids of things like [doing] dishes and garbage and laundry. They end up not knowing how to take responsibility. This undercuts their ability to be the kind of worker a boss wants: somebody who pitches in, who rolls up their sleeves and says, “How can I be useful here,” instead of, “Why isn’t everyone applauding my every move?” Childhood has not prepared them for what the working world will need them to do.”
She goes on to talk about parents’ exaggerated fears for their kids. She says, “we act as if child abduction could happen on every street corner,” and that “parents are on watch, on guard; we feel if we don’t, [our children]… will be snatched by a mythological stranger,” and that because of the ubiquity of technology, “our ability to know where they are at all times has only amped up the terror.”
She clarifies, adding that “where your child is in a situation potentially damaging to life and limb, of course you’re going to protect them. The trouble is we’re acting like everything is life or death,” and this is turning kids into fearful young adults who can’t cope with any type of adversity and who constantly run to their parents for advice and protection around challenges they should be solving on their own.
Parents are undermining their kids’ confidence by praising them excessively for doing unremarkable things. As Lythcott-Haims says, “a kid slides down a slide and we say, “Perfect!” A kid draws on a piece of paper and we say, “Perfect!”… Kids come away with this overblown sense of their own capability, and they think they have to be perfect all the time, [then] wither under the expectation when they realize they’re not.”
Lythcott-Haims decries the tendency of parents to shelter their children from opposing points of view at college or university, or from teachers or classmates who might want to talk about challenging material.
She says, “the essential purpose of higher education is under assault if professors can’t teach and have students talk about difficult subjects. We should just fold up our tents and go home if that’s the way higher education is going. If childhood has been about soothing your feelings, preventing the mean person from being mean, instead of encouraging you to cope with it yourself, then you end up as a young adult who’s bewildered that the world includes people with mind-sets and ideologies that upset you.”
Parents and educators these days are obsessed with kids’ self-esteem. As a psychiatrist, I’ve observed how empty praise and empty rewards do nothing to build up a child’s sense of self. Children need to be praised for putting in their best effort, for playing fair and collaborating well with others. They should be praised for persevering when the going gets rough and for doing their very best. That’s how we help build their self-esteem.
Kids will only develop self-worth by engaging in meaningful activities and positive relationships where they learn and grow and occasionally fail. They’ll learn resilience, good study habits and they’ll be able to use their errors and failures as life lessons. When kids work hard at a goal or put in time and effort to build skills and relationships, they’ll feel better about themselves, regardless of what awards they receive.
Helicopter parenting comes from love, but it’s a misguided approach that leaves children ill-prepared for the challenges of adult life. Children need parents who raise them to be strong and resilient. Parents must encourage their kids to face challenges and cope with failure, loss and disappointment. Parents must let go and allow their kids to figure things out on their own and become confident in their abilities to solve their own problems.
As Lythcott-Haim says, the best way to raise confident kids who can stand on their own two feet and think for themselves is, “you back off. When children experience a setback… that’s not your problem to solve. The best way for a kid to learn is to have that uncomfortable feeling, [to experience] consequences that are tiny in the grand scheme of things.” The more these kids are encouraged to do things for themselves and to connect their actions and choices to real-world outcomes, the more resilient and successful they’ll be.
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