If you believe the media hype, helicopter parents are the scourge of the nation. Overbearing, over-involved moms and dads who monitor their kids’ homework like hawks, harangue teachers for giving a B and supervise their kids’ college lives on a daily basis. Helicopter parents raise lazy, helpless, entitled children who can’t hack it in the real world because Mommy and Daddy have been coddling them their whole lives.
Er, right? Well, no, says parenting and education expert Alfie Kohn in “Debunking the Myth of the ‘Helicopter Parent.'” We’ve been seized by two narratives for so long—one, that “intensive” parenting is on the rise, and two, that it’s harmful—that we haven’t stopped to consider the actual evidence on the subject. Fortunately, Kohn does by examining the available social science data.
Kohn cites a study that used the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which surveyed more than 9,000 students at 24 universities and colleges. The researchers found that only 13 percent of first-years and 8 percent of seniors had parents who frequently got involved to help their children solve problems. This is clearly not the sweeping epidemic of helicoptering the media has been telling us about. One college administrator told the Chronicle of Higher Education that these media reports of overly involved parents, constantly chewing out the dean for every bad grade, are way overblown. In another, 2009 survey of more than 10,000 University of California students, a large majority said that their parents were not involved in selecting their major or their classes.
So helicopter parenting may not be the epidemic we thought it was. Kohn notes that parents certainly communicate more with their kids than our parents did with us—a natural outcome of ubiquitous smartphones. But communicating doesn’t equal intervening.
Second, a pretty big body of research shows that kids with “involved” parents have better health, behavior and academic outcomes. The NSSE survey, reports Kohn, indicated that involved parents had kids with “higher levels of [academic] engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities.” The Indiana University professor who led the survey told the Washington Post: “Compared with their counterparts, children of helicopter parents were more satisfied with every aspect of their college experience, gained more in such areas as writing and critical thinking and were more likely to talk with faculty and peers about substantive topics.”
The difference may be in how we’re defining helicoptering. Kohn notes that “controlling” is not the same as “involved.” Involved means the kind of support that good parents have always offered children: help with difficult parts of their homework, for example, or suggestions on how to make a paper better. Controlling, at least in my memories of college 25 years ago, meant parents who insisted on a certain major or they’d withdraw their support, or parents who would treat every B as a battle to be personally fought with the professor. Those kinds of parents aren’t so much helicopters as they are aggressive jerks, and aggressive jerks are nothing new.
It’s always fun to talk about kids today and how things are different from our own childhoods and teen years. But I don’t think that helicopter parents—at least the controlling, infantilizing monsters popularized in the media—are really, actually, a thing. Supporting our kids, whether it means practicing a layup in the driveway in the afternoon or helping them work through a page of math problems, has always been part of good child-rearing. It’s good for them to know that we’re here for them, even in the college and young-adult years. If that’s helicoptering, then count me in.