This Is Why Parents Are Helicoptering

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Cultura RF/David Jakle/Getty

American parents might want to be more free-range. They might want to emphasize happiness and individuality over helicoptering and hard work. They may prefer to opt out of the rat race of childhood: the endless parade of activities, the drive from school to soccer and home for more studying. Maybe you fret about being a “tiger mom” or a “helicopter mother.” But you do all this stuff for one reason: you want your kid to be successful.

Success in America has traditionally meant doing very well in high school, so you get into a great college, so you have a decent job, so you’re able to earn a minimally adequate standard of living that enables you to raise your own family in a home you own, all without shouldering crippling debt in the form of credit cards or mortgage payments or health care bills.

Clearly, they fucked this up with us millennials.

According to CNBC, we owe an average of $42,000 each, and most of that is credit card debt brought on by various financial tensions, including high student loan payments. According to Time Magazine, about 15% of us remain uninsured. Real estate giant Zillow says a full 22% of us actually still live at home with our parents.

The solution to these economic inequalities? Well, we’ve come up with one, and it’s called helicopter parenting.

But, does it work?

Well, in The Atlantic, economist Fabrizio Zilibotti says that, “There is a lot of variation, but at least on average, it appears so, based on the best of the statistical techniques we can use. We can see that parents’ involvement—in the form of an “intensive” parenting style—tends to be associated with better educational attainment.”

So whether you hover on the playground or argue over Junior’s math scores, you’re only responding to economic realities. Success in America means triumphing over inequalities. And if you want your kid to beat the odds, you hover. We care about our kids being individuals. We care about them being happy. But you’re not going to be happy if you can’t put food on the table. So, we hover closely.

Except success doesn’t work this way in other countries, and we see far less helicoptering in those places too.

We often lament that we want children to be less scheduled. We want them to play outside more; we want to de-emphasize academics in kindergarten and first grade. We need to put less pressure on kids. They need to be more free range, we argue, They need more time to be kids. We often to look to places like Scandinavia for this. According to The Conversation, Nordic countries are among the most equal in terms of income. They may have high taxes, but they also have extensive social safety nets and free universal health care.

More importantly, their kids don’t freak out about which schools they get into. Zilibotti tells The Atlantic, “In Finland, for example, there is much less variance in school quality, and the type of incentives that this creates for parents is really different. Parents don’t move around because of a bad school district or a good school district. Finnish kids and parents know that it doesn’t matter much to be at the top of the class, because the difference between universities is, relatively speaking, not very large.”

In other words, you don’t send Junior to third grade lacrosse camp because you’re hoping he’ll end up with a scholarship to a competitive university someday. You send him only because he loves Lacrosse.

You’re not stressing about whether his pre-algebra scores will disqualify him for admission to Duke or Yale or Princeton. There is no equivalent to Duke or Yale or Princeton in these places, relatively speaking: most universities offer the same quality of education. Giant parental sigh of relief, amiright?

And once Junior gets out of university, it’s much more likely that he’ll have a decent job. There’s much less strain on family life in these places: you get generous maternity benefits when you have a child, for example. According to Vox, “the absolute poverty rate in the US in 2010 was about 10 percent, and in Finland it was about 4.5 percent. Finland’s rate wasn’t slightlylower — it was more than halved compared with the US.” Child poverty in the US? 11.8%. Denmark, on the other hand? A mere 1.9%.

Basically, in these places, there is no child rat race or helicopter parenting because success doesn’t demand it. You’re free to let your kids not learn to read until age 7, like they’re famous for doing in Finland, because they’re not in a cutthroat competition over unequal resources with the five-year-old sitting in the desk next to them.

So if we want to win the hearts and minds of America, we need more than the free-range kids bills. We need to fix income inequality. We need to even out school district funding, so money comes more from the federal government rather than the local tax base, which concentrates rich people with other rich people and tends to leave everyone else behind. We need better social supports. We need to know that when our kids grow up, they’ll be able to have opportunities for success without crushing debt and overwhelming anxiety.

Want us to stop hovering over our kids? Redefine success. And if you want to redefine success, you need the social supports to do it.

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