“Helicopter Parents” Who Love Too Much

The Washington Post [9-2-14] ran an interesting article recently on “helicopter parents.” Helicopter parents are parents of young adult children (usually college age) who rush to solve problems for kids without first checking if the kids are able and willing to solve those problems on their own.

For example: Kids have minor spats or problems with their college roommates; some parents actually contacted the college president to complain. Parents sit in on meetings between floundering students and academic officials, and instead of helping it makes matters worse because the young adult regresses to a sense of helplessness. Or parents of college students do some of the homework for them.

Yes, these are extreme cases, but some research is showing that lesser examples of the same instances are in play every day at colleges throughout the country.

A study published recently in the journal Education + Training found that there is an important line to draw between parental involvement and over-parenting. “While parental involvement might be the extra boost that students need to build their own confidence and abilities, over-parenting appears to do the converse in creating a sense that one cannot accomplish things socially or in general on one’s own,” wrote the authors, two professors from California State University Fresno.

Parents who behave this way probably do so out of anxiety. Anxiety of this kind is usually based on false, distorted or otherwise inaccurate assumptions.

One example of such a false assumption could be, “My child must have this problem resolved as soon as possible.” Who says? Why is having a problem such a catastrophe? Short of an imminent physical danger, there’s no interpersonal or academic problem that’s going to kill anyone. The best way — the only way — to solve any kind of problem is through thinking, reason, followed up by constructive (or at least experimental) action. The more the “child” (who’s actually now 18 or 21) does this on his or her own, the better; and he or she will eventually have to do so on his or her own, anyway.

Another common false assumption is: “My child is a reflection on me.” This is somewhat true, but not always and absolutely true. We live in a more or less individualistic society. People think for themselves and make their own choices. This is, at least, the implicit assumption and expectation. Young people are exposed to all kinds of ideas, practices and customs which parents often find questionable and — even if they like them — were not exposed to when they were younger. Things are constantly changing, while some things do stay the same. Things, up to now, have not stagnated from one generation to the next, not materially and not psychologically and intellectually, either. Young people evolve or grow into whomever they want to be, for better or worse, partially in the context of how their parents raised them, but probably more in the context of what they individually think or believe from adolescence and beyond. It’s ridiculous for parents to assume that whatever their children do, especially as young adults, is primarily their responsibility. This may be true when the child was an infant or a toddler, or at most early school-age. But kids have their own attitudes, beliefs, and even temperaments, things which the parent had nothing to do with consciously shaping or forming.

“Helicopter parents” are parents who rush to the scene — like an emergency or rescue helicopter, the kind you find at the scene of an awful car accident, natural disaster or even in a war. It’s a revealing metaphor. Parents who take on this role perhaps see all of life as dangerous and hostile place, and therefore seek to protect their child from it at all costs. But at what cost? It can be at the cost of the basic self-confidence, self-assertiveness and self-responsibility of the young adult.

The compulsive and anxious parent who does the college student’s homework or calls the college president about a roommate spat is operating on another false premise: “If this problem will be solved, then my child will be all right.” Not so. Not if you solved the problem for the student; and not if the solution comes at the price of reason and reality, as these examples most obviously do.

A lot of parents — even parents of younger children — subconsciously view their children as extensions of themselves. Emotionally, to the parent, it’s as if the child is still part of the parent rather than a completely autonomous person who makes decisions or has thoughts, ideas and emotional experiences completely independent of whatever the parents says, wants, thinks, says or does.

This is a false premise that loving and conscientious parents, in particular, need to continuously check and (as needed) correct. Because if they don’t, the “child” will stay a child emotionally, and that’s presumably not a good thing for anyone.

The more fundamental issue here is reason. Reason refers to the human capacity to conceptualize, think (integrating the perceptions of our senses) and take responsibility for ourselves on a continuous basis via that process of using our minds. Unlike animals, we don’t have instincts to biologically automatize and generate all that’s required for our survival. We humans survive and flourish (including develop psychological attributes such as self-confidence) through a continuing process of exercising reason, in daily life, on our own behalf.

When a parent starts to take over for a young person without even gaining that young person’s consent, it sends the message to the young person, “You can’t do this. Therefore, I will do it for you.”

How is a young person supposed to grow into an adult with a confidence in his or her own sense of reasoning and self-responsibility/self-initiative if the parents rarely allow that young person to exercise it? Granted, some children and young people will assert their own sense of reasoning anyway, and develop self-confidence regardless of what the parents say, do or think. But these are the exceptions, and not the norm, for understandable reasons.

Strictly speaking, it’s not that helicopter parents “love too much.” It’s that they don’t  define love in exactly the right way. When you love someone, you respect, value and even honor their autonomy and personal responsibility. This is true whether a young adult is your own offspring, or somebody else’s. Even if you don’t understand or agree with that person’s way of thinking or choices — even if you’re certain they’re making wrong choices — you cannot disturb their autonomy. You can’t attempt to shield them from the consequences of their choices, good or bad. It’s not merely that you shouldn’t. It’s that you can’t. Because in the end, our lives are the product of countless choices, thinking and actions we make on a daily basis, for better or worse. The compulsively anxious parent who rushes in to protect his 18-year-old, or even 32-year-old, from this or that consequence is, right at the starting gate, engaged in a futile action.

It’s not only that parents shouldn’t “help” by shielding their young adult kids from reality; it’s that the “helping” is not theirs to take on.

I already anticipate one question here. What about the high cost of college tuition? What if the parent is footing much or all of the bill, or the loan, for the college? Well, none of that changes what I’m saying. It’s up to the parent to decide when to cut this help off, or how much, or in what way, to require the young person to pay off that tuition after graduation. Showering your anxiety (based on false assumptions; see above) on your young adult child isn’t going to make him or her succeed in college. It will only make things worse, in fact.

Generally speaking, when you see a young person (particularly your child) doing everything in his or her power to be self-responsible, then (assuming you’re able) you probably want to help that young person out in the quest to become all that he or she might be. On the other hand, if a young person is goofing off to the point where staying in an academic program might not even be permitted by the university — well, you’re naturally going to have feelings about it, and you probably should withdraw your support, and save the funds for a time when and if the young person might better benefit from that help.

But in the end, no person’s life is yours to live. The fact that someone is your child (now a young adult) does not magically alter this fact. You can’t live for someone else, because you cannot get into their bodies, act on their behalf, and do the necessary thinking for them. That’s what I mean by autonomy. It’s not only a value judgment; it’s the way it is. Accept this and live your own life, and try not to live through your kids. They’re their own people, and not extensions of yourselves.

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