parent opinion

How helicopter parents broke a generation.

It’s lunchtime at a local Australian primary school and the kids in Years 3 to 6 are being held back in the hall to receive a stern talking-to. The school toilets have been badly vandalised and teachers are delivering a lecture about the importance of respecting public property as part of the public school’s positive behaviour for learning strategy. 

But according to a media report, the parents of these children saw nothing positive about it. On a local Facebook page, one parent compared the school to a prison camp, another claimed the experience had triggered ‘trauma’ for their child.

Warnings were posted that the teachers responsible would be “getting in trouble”. What happened next will be familiar to teachers everywhere; the school received an avalanche of complaints from parents who were incensed at the treatment their children had received.

There are two responses to this story. One is that it’s outrageous for kids to be prevented from having their lunch break. The other is that parents have lost the plot. And your reaction most likely corresponds to your age. Because in just a generation, parenting has changed a lot.

"Don’t want to hit your kids? Fine. But other people should be allowed to."

As far as headlines go, this one was highly effective because as I scrolled the homepage of a news site, I nearly broke my thumb clicking on it. What monster was suggesting we start hitting random children?

It turns out the monster is one of my favourite writers and he was joking. Sort of. Sixty-four year-old David Sedaris was floating his theory about why young people seem so easily offended and say things like ‘words are violence’. 

This is the generation (Z) widely ridiculed for lacking resilience by older generations (Boomers, X) who insist that back in their day, they walked 100km to school backwards with no legs and when did young people get so damn soft.

Even millennials eye roll about Gen Z being ‘snowflakes’.

And Sedaris believes he knows why. “Part of the problem is their parents never hit them, so they don’t know what pain is,” he says. “You know when they say, ‘That was really painful when you said that word’, or ‘That was really painful when you made me look at that photograph’’? I’m suggesting that if you don’t want to hit your children, that’s OK. But other people should be allowed to; children now are like animals that have no natural predators left.”

My god, he’s right.

Not about the hitting. Don’t hit children, please. What Sedaris identified is that there is an alarming new definition of ‘pain’ by a generation who has been fiercely protected from so much of it from the moment they were born.

He’s also right about the cause of the snowflakery. This is our fault, the helicopter parents. With the best of intentions, we accidentally created a generation of kids who are now becoming adults, many of whom have a warped view of harm and suffering that is disrupting institutions and workplaces and causing older generations to throw their hands up in despair.

But on behalf of the helicopters, of which I am one, I swear, we were just following instructions.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.”

You heard this a lot if you grew up in the '80s. Your parents would drill it into you whenever you came home from school complaining about someone being mean. They were unmoved by our distress. “Just say that and walk away” they’d reply.

It wasn’t entirely true, of course. Names can hurt you, of course, they can. They can burrow deep into your bones and infect the way you think about yourself. 

But nobody understood this back then and our parents just wanted to toughen us up and prepare us for a world in which there would always be arseholes. A world in which some people would be mean or unreasonable and where we would frequently feel upset about things we couldn’t control.

The idea that ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger’ and that life is shitty sometimes are values our Boomer parents instilled in us, sometimes proactively and sometimes via the benign neglect that was the signature of 1970s parenting. For better or worse, their basic approach was to encourage us to harden up and deal with life ourselves. 

This act of growing stronger instead of crumbling when bad things happen is now called resilience and parents are obsessed with our children having more of it. It’s ironic then, that the same people who inhale every book and article on how to build up resilience in children, are the same ones who are smashing it like a wrecking ball.

It’s us. Hi. We’re the problem, it’s us. The helicopters.

Image Getty.

The term "helicopter parenting" first emerged in the 1990s book, Parenting With Love and Logic by child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay who identified three distinct parenting styles: helicopters, drill sergeants and consultants. Helicopters were described as:

“Parents who protect and rescue their kids are a lot like helicopters, which are very noisy and are often used in rescue missions. Helicopter parents make a lot of noise as they rescue their kids from the potential consequences of their actions. The message that helicopter parents send their kids is, ‘You aren’t able to help yourself, so I need to do things for you.’ [Helicopters] hover over and then rescue their children whenever trouble arises."

At the time, this was an enormous cultural change because the parenting vibe until that point had been Go-Play-Outside-And-I’ll-See-You-At-Dinner-Where-You’ll-Eat-What-You’re-Given.

In her memoir, Untamed, Glennon Doyle explains it brilliantly:

Every generation of parents receives a memo when they leave the hospital with their baby. My grandmothers’ memo: Here is the baby. Take it home and let it grow. Let it speak when spoken to. Carry on with your lives.

My mother’s memo: Here is your baby. Take her home and then get together each day with your friends who also have these things. Drink Tab before four o’clock and wine coolers after. Smoke cigarettes and play cards. Lock the kids out of the house and let them in only to eat and sleep. Lucky bastards.

Our memo: Here is your baby. This is the moment you have been waiting for your entire life: when the hole in your heart is filled and you finally become complete. If, after I put this child in your arms, you sense anything other than utter fulfillment, seek counseling immediately. After you hang up with the counselor, call a tutor.

Since we have been speaking for three minutes, your child is already behind. Have you registered her for Mandarin classes yet? I see. Poor child. Listen closely: Parent is no longer a noun — those days are done. Parent is now a verb, something you do ceaselessly. 

Think of the verb parent as synonymous with protect, shield, hover, deflect, fix, plan, and obsess. Parenting will require all of you; please parent with your mind, body, and soul. Parenting is your new religion, within which you will find salvation. This child is your savior. Convert or be damned. We will wait while you cancel all other life endeavors. Thank you.

Now the goal of parenting is: Never allow anything difficult to happen to your child.

And here’s another irony: back when there were far fewer women in the workforce, the definition of being a “good mother” set the bar far lower because it required so much less of your time and attention. Now, being a good mother means having a singular focus on your child so that nothing bad ever happens to them and that means devoting a much greater chunk of your time to parenting.

 A 2015 study showed that for three to 11-year-olds, mothers spend an average of 11 to 30 hours each week either fully engaged in activities with their kids, or nearby and accessible when needed. And for kids in their early teens, mums are there between 11 and 20 hours each week. On average, in 1975 mums spent just over seven hours per week with their kids.

Let’s take a moment to think about that. In 1975 very few mothers worked outside the home. By 2015, most did. And yet we are almost spending three times as much time with our children. That’s what hovering looks like.

So how the hell did this happen? It almost makes you wonder if the concept of helicopter parenting was a way to keep women weighed down in a traditional homemaker role at the exact time we were stretching our wings.

***

***

Seven years after that book about helicopter parenting was released, I became a mother. And a helicopter.

Without even knowing the term but somehow absorbing the concept via the culture, I was among the first wave of helicopters, along with all the other new parents in the late nineties and early 2000s.

If you don’t have kids yet or your kids are older, you may wonder what this looks like in practice, so let me tell you:

“Darling, you slept so well last night! Such great sleeping!”

“Great job drinking that water! Excellent hydrating!”

“Well done for letting your brother speak. You’re such a kind and generous girl!”

“You got dressed! You’re so clever!”

“Did you feel sad when I raised my voice? Mummy is so sorry for losing her temper.”

“Yes, of course I can get up and pour you a bowl of Corn Flakes even though you’re nine years old.”

“What do you feel like eating for dinner? I can make that chicken you like or... pasta or something else?”

“That’s a terrific question you just asked. Good asking!”

“Brilliant eating! You almost finished your dinner!”

“You had such a good bath! Well done!”

“You said thank you to Nana for your present, I’m so proud of you! Great manners!"

And repeat. For 18 years. 

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From birth, we are encouraged to offer our children endless choices and praise-bomb them for doing basic things. The idea is that you make a big deal of good behaviour to encourage more of it and to build your child’s self-esteem because that memo we got emphasised the importance of self-confidence over all else.

Somehow, this has translated into us inadvertently training them to expect adulation for doing the bare minimum required to exist as a decent member of society. Eat food, drink water, say thank you, sleep and wake up. Don’t be a dick but even if you are a dick, good trying! Our praise became wallpaper. Gushing validation was the white noise of their childhood.

At the same time, like the other helicopters, I made it my business to frantically clear my children’s path of all obstacles in accordance with the Good Parent memo: do not, under any circumstances, allow children to be upset about anything, ever. And I don’t mean suffering or actual pain or distress. Of course, children should be protected from that as much as possible, on that we can agree because I’m not a monster. But like most helicopters, I extrapolated this idea to include any form of inconvenience. Snacks, drinks and entertainment must be available on-demand! An iPad in a cafe to avoid boredom! A screen in the car! Whenever they said “I’m bored”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m thirsty”, I heard the culture whisper into my ear: “You’re a terrible mother”.

Here’s something to know: if your goal is to have a child who never complains because they have a life free of unmet needs and negative emotions… well, lol, because the goalposts will always move. If you always have snacks at the park, the problem becomes what kind of snacks. If they’re never bored because they always have a screen in the car, the problem becomes what kind of show and is it interesting enough at every specific moment.

It’s important to be honest about the benefit of this for parents. Yes, the helicoptering is tedious, endless work but the short-term payoff is that they complain less which feels like a win for you too. A child whose path is constantly cleared and who always has his mouth full of snack and his eyes full of screen is far easier to deal with than a child who is frustrated, annoyed, disappointed, angry or bored.

It took me a long, long time and several children to realise this whole idea of helicoptering is deeply flawed. Not only does it guarantee the life of a martyr for you but it also does a gross disservice to your child. This may sound counterintuitive – how can making your kid’s life great be bad for them? Oh, it’s not! So long as they live in a bubble and don’t ever come into contact with reality. 

Helicoptering robs our kids of the opportunity to experience life; to learn how to manage complex emotions and to learn about consequences. One of the greatest joys of parenting is watching your child grow more independent. When you’re a helicopter, you’re actively preventing them from growing into adults who can function in the world without you. I don’t think this is ever what we wanted and yet here we are.

For Boomers, "parent" was just a noun, not a verb.

The older Boomers – did things differently. Their approach to parenting in the '60s, '70s and '80s could charitably be described as loose. Today, it might be described as “Free Range” Parenting but Boomer mums and dads didn’t do it mindfully or with purpose and it had no name or philosophy. 

They didn’t read parenting books because ‘parent’ was just a noun not a verb. As kids, we were given a ton of freedom to make mistakes and get up to mischief which meant we had to learn how to manage risks. When there are no guardrails and nobody hovering to tell you to stop roller skating on the road or using the hose on the trampoline, you have to work it out for yourself.

We were resourceful and independent and self-sufficient because we had to be. Years later when I was old enough to buy my own children a trampoline, it came with a built-in net so they couldn’t fall off, and no springs, so they couldn’t hurt themselves. I bought it so they would have a way to occupy themselves (safely!) but they insisted I watch them jumping.

And I did. Because the thing nobody tells you about helicoptering is that you can’t switch it on and off. Your children become accustomed to the hovering and complain when it stops.

To be clear, the benign-neglect approach to parenting was not always successful. Or even pretty. Boomer parents often did things we can all agree were not great. For us. They left us in cars while they went to the pub and then drove us home drunk, smoking as we sat in the back seat, unrestrained and marinating in cancer fumes. They let us play with firecrackers. 

In our neighbourhood, we would pool our pocket money to buy little boxes of throw-downs from the newsagent which were tiny paper packages of explosives which you would ‘throw down’ and they would explode with a loud bang. We would hurl them at cars and each other for fun and it was. Injuries were minor but plentiful although kids would occasionally blow their fingers off after buying larger firecrackers that were helpfully sold at toy stores. It was a relaxed approach to parenting that undoubtedly led to much therapy in later life but arguably, it also sparked resilience. We had to sort shit out because nobody was there to control every aspect of our lives.

For example, here are some modern-day things our parents would definitely not have done if we complained someone had called us a mean name at school:

  • Call the parents of the other child

  • March into school the next day to report the incident to our teacher

  • Insist on an urgent meeting with the school principal

  • Use the word ‘bullying’ to describe said incident

  • Email our therapist to update them on ‘an alarming development'

  • Surface the situation in a WhatsApp group of the whole class or the whole year.

  • Get us a therapist

By the time my own children started school, things had changed dramatically. The idea of “suck it up, sunshine’ was anathema in modern parenting and was, in fact, considered adjacent to abuse. Some time between being a kid and becoming a parent, our whole culture had turned towards prioritising a child’s perpetual happiness above all else. 

The first time I became aware of the epic nature of this shift was at my youngest son’s first athletics carnival. ‘All children are asked to bring a large safety pin in order to attach their ribbons to their sports shirt,’ the school newsletter informed me. 

That’s optimistic, I thought, having no clue if my son could run fast or not. He was five.

I took the morning off work to watch because small children trying to run fast in a straight line is adorable.

At my son’s primary school, every child received a ribbon for every race they entered. The only condition was that they had to actually cross the finish line and not sit down in the middle of the race and start crying or wander off to pat a dog. The bar for victory was low.  

Quickly, I understood why we’d been asked to bring large safety pins and not the regular size. By the end of the carnival, small children were practically toppling over due to the weight of all ribbons pinned gaily to their chests.
I think there may have been different coloured ribbons for the children who actually came first, second or third in their races or perhaps they got two ribbons instead of just the one? It was hard to tell because there were so many ribbons being thrust into tiny hands as to render the very concept of a prize meaningless.

Good intentions certainly play a part in this madness. Because not everyone can run fast and shouldn’t we encourage participation not just success? There is a compelling argument for this and it comes most loudly from the parents of kids with disabilities. I understand where they’re coming from. Their efforts and participation should be recognised but it wasn’t those kids who were being rewarded here, it was the able-bodied kids who just didn’t run fast enough to win.

So have we considered the effect of this new participation-reward culture more broadly? Because when these children grow up and go for a job interview, not everyone gets the job. And even if they do, they won’t get a prize every day for turning up to work. Or even a thank you. That’s what their wage is for: doing the job. Constant validation for doing your job – good working! – is not something most managers have the time or appetite for.

So are we raising a generation incapable of functioning in the world unless they are constantly recognised, praised and rewarded?

That day at the athletics carnival, 10 years ago, surrounded by small children festooned in meaningless ribbons flapping about, it dawned on me like a rising nausea: in our well-meaning attempts to prioritise our children’s self-esteem above all else, we are f**king them up? I think we might be.  

Amidst the constant praise and prizes that we’ve been led to believe is the bedrock of raising a happy child, are we failing to teach them coping skills?

Frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, sadness… even shame, these fundamental emotions all lead to reflection and ultimately growth. This is the actual –  and only – recipe for resilience. Because the difference between resilience and strength is that strength is innate. Resilience is about becoming stronger after hardship.

It’s a crucial life lesson best learnt early that you will feel shit at different points in your life but you can get through it and you’ll be OK. 

So why did we start to believe that our kids should never feel uncomfortable? When did we decide they were owed a frictionless, perennially pleasant path through life and that it was our job as parents to clear that path for them, every day in every way? Who told us that negative emotions of any kind are unacceptable and our job is to protect our kids from them at all costs?

When exactly did we agree as a society that being a good parent meant shielding your child from every experience that doesn’t come wrapped in a rainbow?

***

In our defence, parenting is legitimately so much harder for us than it was for our own parents and grandparents. Yes, we have washing machines and mobile phones and Uber Eats and microwaves and Google. That certainly helps.

But we are parenting way out of our lived experience. To put it another way, we don’t have a bloody clue what we’re doing because there are so things we just never experienced at their age. For better and worse. The Internet has brought inherent wonders along with its infinite toxic tentacles that snake into our homes and our children’s heads via the devices we gift them. Social media, AI, gaming, ChatGPT, filters, cyber-bullying, revenge-porn, dick-pics. 

The fact that the Internet was invented after we became adults but before our children were born gives them an advantage we can never match. They seem smarter than us because they are. How can we make rules for games we don’t understand?

***

Today, the children born to us, the first generation of helicopters, are young adults, entering the workforce in huge numbers. And after a lifetime of parental hovering, encouragement and protection, some of them are woefully unprepared for life without it.

Similarly, we have a generation of parents (let’s be honest, mothers) who don’t know how to stop helicoptering their adult children.

In the US where most kids live on campus, college administrators are reporting a spike in dropouts with students unable to wake up on time to attend lectures or even feed themselves without constant adult support and reminders. These are young people who never had to set an alarm, organise their own meals or proactively take any part in running their own lives because they had helicopters to do all that.

Unbelievably, college staff are now regularly fielding calls from the parents of new students, asking if the college will provide more hands-on support with things like getting up in the morning and being reminded to go to class. 

Talk to anyone who works with young people and they will tell you stories like these…

  • Schools are receiving emails from mothers asking to sit detentions on behalf of their children “because it was my fault she didn’t have her PE uniform; I didn’t wash it in time!”

  • Teachers and university lecturers are being contacted by parents disputing their child’s marks for specific assignments or exams and insisting on face-to-face meetings to argue their case with the teacher.

  • Employers and HR managers are receiving calls from the parents of young members of staff, who want to discuss their child’s salary and career progression.

  • Some workplaces are having “bring your parents to work day” because parents are super keen to see where their adult children work and meet their managers.

What about the kids, though? The kids who are now adults. What is the effect on them after a lifetime of protective hovering? Back to David Sedaris and his observation that young adults have become so unaccustomed to discomfort, their definition of ‘harm’ has expanded to the point where older generations can’t understand it.

Today, there are people who will insist that words can indeed be as harmful as physical violence. There are calls for the wider application of trigger warnings on content and even on the social media posts of individuals lest someone feel traumatised by something they read online or heard in a university lecture. Meanwhile, the definition of ‘traumatised’ has become so broad among some people as to include feeling sad, uncomfortable, angry or displeased. 

On the up-side, this generation will not accept being harassed or abused in the same way that we did. The idea of ‘suck it up’ is anathema to them. And for every woman, like me, who was sexually harassed at work as a teenager or young woman and just accepted that as standard because we didn’t even have a word for it, this is indeed progress. And yet.

Having controlled the emotional experiences of our children throughout their young lives, as adults they are now demanding that same protection be given to them by society. Not just from actual crimes like sexual harassment or abuse but from the full spectrum of negative emotions and experiences. Having moved physically away from their parents in their twenties, this generation is conscripting the world as their helicopter, demanding they be shielded from ‘harm’ at all times. 

And why shouldn’t they? We did this.

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Top Comments

J
jlrvnewman 8 months ago
Brilliant article Mia. Having worked in a secondary school parents were more of a problem than the students. Eg. Student lights fire to a gas heater in class room. Parent blames teacher for not checking classroom door was securely locked.  Student not responsible.  Student exonerated.  Where was the lesson learnt?

H
hermione 8 months ago
2 upvotes
Great article but any Outlouder would know that Mia’s kids seem to have turned out alright so she either wasn’t a helicopter parent like she says or it’s not that bad.