In Praise of Helicopter Moms

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

I am a helicopter parent. This is not who I want to be, but I don’t really have any choice. I would prefer to be a hippie parent like my mother was when I was a child in West Virginia: She’d cook and play guitar with pals on the deck while I roamed from creek to river and biked along railroad tracks. She was unconcerned with my grades and my piano, which languished.

In contrast, I’m sure that when my kids are in school, I’ll be the mom flashing flashcards and setting an egg timer for violin practice and lobbying the principal to get a particular fourth-grade teacher.

There’s a lot of pressure on parents (on mothers, really, because parenting advice, media, etc. are usually aimed at mothers) to be laid-back, or chill, to just relax, to let your kids roam, to send them to the park alone, and to not help them with homework.

The scolding tone of these articles sets my teeth on edge. They seem to say: “Oh, mothers, you are just so controlling,” (was there ever a more gendered word than controlling?) as if trying to exert some control were not a rational response to our current, lousy, totally out-of-control economic circumstances.

Now two economists, one at Northwestern University and the other at the University of Zurich, have compiled a set of data that explains the rise of the helicopter parent. In short: Rising income inequality over the last 40 years, combined with the increasing returns on education, have made a “helicopter” parenting style a rational choice.

“Children who fail to complete their education can no longer look forward to a secure, middle-class life, and consequently parents have redoubled their efforts to ensure their children’s success.” —Drs. Doepke and Zilibotti

At the playground yesterday I met a mother who had recently spent a year in Sweden. “Is it true,” I asked, like I was asking about Willy Wonka, “that there is free drop-in daycare there, where you can leave your kid for an hour or two, just to get a break?” She confirmed that there was—nearly free, anyway: Parents pay a small percentage of their income, and it’s capped. There are health centers in every neighborhood that take care of vaccinations and the medical needs of the children. No risking bankruptcy if your kid needs to see a doctor. College is free.

The thing that’s most remarkable, she said to me, is how chill the Swedish mothers are. “There’s just none of the stress, the rushing around and the anxiety that you see with American parents.”

Yeah, about that anxiety. I’m a helicopter parent not because I’m controlling, but because there’s just not a lot of room for my kids to fail. If this were the 1960s, when kids could goof off and get bad grades without grave economic consequences, then sure. They could be self-motivated and self-actualized; they could find themselves in Tibet for a year, and we’d be smiling our benevolent smiles from our fixer-upper Victorian front porches as they ambled home from their adventures. But now, if they don’t get into a good college—or worse, start college and don’t finish—they’ve just got a ton of debt they can’t discharge and no job prospects.

For my cohort, who started having kids at the start of the recession, the precariousness of the working and middle classes looms large. We all know people, or are people, who haven’t been able to get back on their feet after job losses, whose retirement and college funds were decimated, who lost their homes. My primary goal as a mother is to help my kids position themselves for a secure life, which isn’t so easy to do anymore: It means college and probably graduate school. And that means they need to be working hard from grade school on.

They’re still small, so perhaps I should say, I plan to be a helicopter parent—push to get them into the best schools, monitor their homework, hire tutors if we can swing it, “overschedule” them in whatever extracurriculars they want and might be useful.

People love to say that women are uptight and controlling, even when they’re responding rationally to precarious, frightening circumstances. So it’s time to recognize that structural economic inequalities exist, that they are entrenched, and that a given individual responding by drilling the algebra problems or cracking the whip on piano practice is entirely, completely sensible.

According to Drs. Doepke and Zilibotti, I’m not alone:

“If the march towards higher inequality continues, the current era will mark the beginning of a sustained trend towards ever pushier parenting.”

photo: flickr/The U.S. Army

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