Last week my wife and I watched the new movie, Everybody’s Fine. Robert
DeNiro, playing a recently widowed father of four, discovers that his
children have been telling him only what he wants to hear because he
held each of them to his expectations, not theirs.
But most poignant was his advice to
his most troubled son. As a kid, David wanted to paint. I’m
paraphrasing here but DeNiro’s character told David, “don’t be just a
painter, become an artist.” David did become an artist. But he also
became a troubled soul and unfortunately died a tragic death. In
reflecting back, DeNiro talks to David sorrowfully tells him “to paint.”
When I returned home, I quickly “googled” an article I read recently in Time magazine about the “insanity” of “overparenting.” In it Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, recalled
his son’s reaction to learning he was getting an art tutor to help him
draw better. “He look[ed] at me like I [was] from outer space,” Honoré
said. “‘I just wanna draw,’ he [told] me. ‘Why do grownups have to take
The Time article diagnosed the scenario as a classic case of helicopter parenting. I’ve written and spoken about it for several years. I even devoted a chapter to it in my book:
…we just wanted what was best
for our kids. We bought macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks,
hired tutors to correct a 5-year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,”
hooked up broadband connections in the treehouse but took down the
swing set after the second skinned knee. We hovered over every school,
playground and practice field — “helicopter parents,” teachers christened us, a phenomenon that spread to parents of all ages, races and regions.
Stores began marketing
stove-knob covers and “Kinderkords” (also known as leashes; they allow
“three full feet of freedom for both you and your child”) and Baby
Kneepads (as if babies don’t come prepadded)…
Overparenting’s been around a long
time. Douglas MacArthur’s mom Pinky reportedly moved with him to West
Point in 1899 and took an apartment near the campus, supposedly so she
could watch him with a telescope to be sure he was studying. In the
1960s and 1970s the pendulum swung the other way. With Baby Boomers
reprioritizing careers over kids, the term latch-key kid was coined to
denote a generation of kids fending for themselves while their parents
climbed the ladder. When these kids entered the workforce as Generation
X, free agency and work-life balance hit the proverbial work ethic fan.
But in the 1990s the needle shifted
again, but this time it went way past the red line. Parents stopped
letting kids out of their sight. Welcome to a generation raised by
helicopter parents. Parents who were raised walking alone to school,
riding mass transit, trick-or-treating, and selling Girl Scout cookies
door to door forbid their kids to do the same. The percentage of kids
walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001.
Parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and
strollers suddenly needed the warning label “Remove Child Before
Folding.” Among 6-to-8-year-olds, free playtime dropped 25% from 1981
to ’97, and homework more than doubled.
Parents became so obsessed with
their kids’ success that parenting turned into a form of product
development. The competition to get your child enrolled into top-flight
nursery schools became more fierce than getting an academic scholarship
into an Ivy League school. High school teachers began to receive irate
text messages from parents protesting an exam grade before class was
even over; college deans described freshmen as “crispies,” who arrived
at college already burned out, and “teacups,” who seemed ready to break
at the tiniest stress.
Some elementary schools had to
institute a “no rescue” policy to prevent the daily onslaught of
parents dropping in to deliver forgotten lunch boxes and notebooks.
Many colleges have a “director of parent programs” to run regional
groups so moms and dads can meet fellow college parents or attend
special classes where they learn school cheers. Others employ “parent
cops” so that during orientation, course registration and Parent Days,
the faculty and administration isn’t attacked by parents demanding to
know why their child isn’t at the top of the class.
What should come as a welcome relief
to teachers and employers, a backlash against overparenting has been
building for years (although the teachers and parents who seem to be
doing the most griping are the most offensive helicopter parents). The
shift is no less prominent than what’s printed these days on toddler
tees. We’ve gone from “Baby on Board” to Honestbaby.com selling baby
T-shirts that say “I’ll walk when I’m good and ready.” This helicopter
parent insurgency goes by many names — slow parenting, simplicity
parenting, free-range parenting — but the message is the same: Less is
more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful.
Grounding the hovering helicopter
parent won’t be easy. Parental advice from “experts” has been shaping
the parenting style for years: from D.H. Lawrence (who said in 1918:
“How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second
rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole
beginning.”) to Dr Benjamin Spock, Dear Abby, Oprah and Dr.Phil. But
the lag time between the change in child-rearing philosophy and mature
offspring takes a generation. And for those adult-age children raised
by the not-so-perfect parent, there is no instant replay to reverse the
By the time parents recognize the
error of their ways, the children have already been molded and shaped.
While the shift away from overparenting is obviously well underway, it
will take years to shift the attitudes and behaviors of the children.
Generation X latch-key kids, the offspring of Baby Boomers, shaped
recruiting, retention and business strategies for the past two decades.
Their attitudes toward work ethic, communication, career planning and more
lingered long after they were out from under the short reach of their
parents. Generation Y, nearly double the size of Gen X, is now entering
Even if their hovering parents are grounded, the “kids are out of the bag” and standing at employers’ doorsteps.
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