The Making of a Helicopter Parent

By Melissa Stefanec

If you read any parenting blogs or travel in parenting circles, you often hear people throw around the phrase “helicopter parent.”

People usually use the term in a negative context — to describe a parent who is overly involved in their child’s life.

Society accuses helicopter parents of spending too much time and energy monitoring every aspect of a child’s life, from their education, to their friends, to their activities. People use the term to describe everyone from the mom who won’t let her child near the monkey bars, to the dad who stays up until 2 a.m. finishing his child’s college admission essay.

I am not a helicopter parent, at least not most of the time. I think the majority of parents get too involved in their child’s life here and there, but most of us try not to make a habit of it.

However, if pop culture and older adults were to have their snarky observations reflect the truth, you’d think every parent with a child under 18 still wipes the snot off their kid’s face. To hear some people tell it, you’d think the modern parent believes helicoptering is the only way to safely raise a productive future member of society.

You hear the laments from people who had childhoods without helicopter parents. “I used to run in the woods all day. My parents never knew where I was.” “The streetlights were my curfew.” “My mom sent me out the door at breakfast and didn’t expect to see me until lunch.” According to many of today’s childless adults and grandparents, this era of parenting is a dark one that would benefit from revisiting simpler times.

Apparently, back in the 1950s and 1960s, most children were far more autonomous and capable than they are today. They were mature and responsible in a way today’s children could never hope to be. Today’s parents aren’t giving their children enough independence. We meddle too much. Instead of being caretakers, we are interloping enablers who are raising a generation of dependent whiners.

Those observations have an element of truth to them. Kids today are less autonomous than their early- and mid-20th-century peers.

You know why?

There are a lot of reasons and plenty of good intentions gone awry, but one of the biggest contributing factors is older parents and childless adults. Many of them are forcing us to be helicopter parents. Hear me out.

My daughter and son are 8 and 4 years old, respectively. As they are maturing, I’m trying to give them small tasks that offer independence. Depending on which kid I am dealing with, I might leave them in the car while I pick up a pizza. I might send them to a bathroom at a restaurant. I might leave them in a waiting room at a doctor’s office while I use the bathroom. I might ask them to cash out at a store by themselves. I do all sorts of things to let them practice autonomy and gain confidence. I think both are equally important, and I want my children to know they are capable as they tackle new skills and responsibilities.

For example, when I go to sporting practices, sometimes I try to leave my kids there or venture a little ways off to engage in an activity with my other child. I don’t think it’s critical that parents hang on to every moment of their kid’s practice. Instead of looking to me for approval whenever something goes right, I want my kids to practice hard and take in the thrill of the moment for their personal enjoyment.

Here’s the thing, though, these small attempts by yours truly don’t always go so well. Whether it’s lectures, forbiddance or glares and whispers, I often receive a lot of pushback.

People think I am being irresponsible or lazy. Some people greet my attempts at distilling autonomy in my kids with shock, awe and disgust. However, I try to be a prudent and responsible parent. I’m very protective of my children; I just realize that being overprotective puts children at a slew of risks that many people don’t see coming.

If society thinks helicopter parents are doing so much damage to their children, why does society demand helicoptering? In the age of around-the-clock news and never-ending access to information online, people have become scared of the wrong things. It’s society’s collective fear, stroked by our access to technology, that has created the helicopter parent. It’s a modern invention, but it’s not just generation X and the millennials who deserve the blame for it.

We need to support parents when they try to give their children autonomy. Instead of judging or reprimanding them, we need to remember most parents choose wisely for their children. If today’s parents want their children to grow physically and emotionally, we owe it to them to step aside.

So next time I send one of my kids to cash out for a bottle of water on their own, humor us. I promise I am lurking in the aisle, keeping a watchful eye, as my kid actually and safely grows up.