Parents who try to protect their children from every knock in life are not doing them any favours. The parenting challenge is to get the balance right and not indulge in helicopter parenting.
Want to know what what helicopter parenting looks like? I’ve met a five-year-old who still drinks from a bottle. Then there’s a six-year-old who won’t eat unless he’s on Mumsey’s lap. How about the four-year-old still on the boob. And countless ten and eleven-year-olds who can’t even put on their own sunblock, let alone tidy their own bedrooms.
Their moms and dads are ‘helicopter parents’. They’re always hovering: in the hallway as junior plays with friends or on the sidelines of sports fields making sure their precious offspring don’t get hurt or worse, lose. They’re outside the teacher’s office waiting to explain how exceptional their children are or that the child’s poor performance has a very valid reason.
What is helicopter parenting?
Helicopter parents run their children’s lives, overseeing them at every turn. They make sure that no hardships are experienced, Helicopter parents won’t let their children play on a jungle gym alone. They won’t remove the training wheels from their bikes, which they ride in helmets and knee-pads on thick sand.
Studies reported in Psychology Today show that hyperparenting is bad for children’s development. Failures, challenges and the discomforts of childhood create resilient, emotionally mature, independent adults.
Children of helicopter parents are not learning to take responsibility or develop initiative. They don’t learn decision-making or any of the other essential life skills we depend so heavily upon in later life.
And many parents never realise what a disservice their ‘helicopter mode’ is doing to their children until it is too late.
Get the balance right
Cape Town-based online psychology counsellor Michele Carelse says: “Balance is crucial. Balance between ensuring their safety on the one hand and providing them with opportunities to take part in experiences that will allow them to develop essential life skills on the other. Children learn from experience. Experience often means that parents need to allow their children to take risks – and sometimes get hurt,” she continues. “Children who are overprotected will not learn to look after themselves. More importantly, they will not develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.”
According to Psychology Today, protecting children from failure is equally damaging. Overprotected school-leavers are prone to greater depression and anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse.
Children learn from mistakes
The root lies firmly at the feet of parenting. Children pick up their parents’ expectations and dreams in terms of success. And, they are also being more and more shielded from events that could help them to develop their own ‘backbone’.
At least two mothers I know have kept their children at home because they haven’t prepared well enough for a test. Several others routinely ‘help’ with homework and projects as if a promotion depended on it.
“Making mistakes and experiencing failure are important for learning,” says Michele. “If children are constantly protected from failure or shielded from the consequences of their own actions, they will miss out on many opportunities to grow physically, emotionally and spiritually. This applies in all areas of their lives.”
Michele adds that extramurals and educational experiences are of value, but “nothing beats free-play in terms of providing opportunities for intellectual, emotional and social development.”
Work in progress
Invariably, helicopter parenting does not necessarily involve free-play, with its associated hovering, observation, channelling and supervision.
“Research shows that children who do not have the opportunity to engage in free-play on a regular basis score lower on IQ tests,” says Michele. “They also have less self-esteem and develop fewer life skills. In terms of extramurals and organised activities, more is not necessarily better, especially if this robs the child of free time to use as he or she wants.”
“The trick,” says Michele, “is to create a balance. Encourage age-appropriate behaviours that are without risk, yet still challenge your child to grow and learn.”