Say the term “helicopter parent” in a group of youth experts and educators, and watch eyes roll and heads nod in sympathy all around. Most kids activity organizers deal with parents who are overly involved in the lives of their children, all the while shielding them from important growing pains of failure, conflict, and hard work.
Recognize your own influence
While helicopter parenting usually carries negative connotations, it doesn’t have to be all bad. Love, concern, involvement, and ambition can all be at the heart of over-parenting, even if misguided. But youth experts on the front lines can help funnel “helicopter” energies in the productive direction of parent partnership.
Example: When my friend enrolled her strong-willed 2-year-old in preschool, she crumpled, at times, under the teacher’s high expectations for her child. Often at pickup, the teacher shook her head solemnly at my friend, indicating yet another day of the child’s unwillingness to conform to the classroom routine. Though she was tempted to make excuses for her son, my friend worked with him while staying in close communication with the teacher. By mid-year, he learned to do what was expected, and he’s been a fully engaged student ever since. A decade later, my friend still attributes some of her son’s success in school to that preschool teacher.
You’ve probably experienced dozens of stories like this, illustrating the power of parents partnering with the experts and educators who work with their children. So how can you harness the potential of a helicopter parent?
Acknowledge the cultural conditions
A recent article in The New York Times describes ways that parents have become overly involved in the lives of grown kids entering the workforce, some even inserting themselves into job interviews or complaining to employers.1 The article and follow-up feature with reader responses cite several critical, even derisive, comments about helicopter parents and the negative impact on their children, not to mention their teachers, employers, and peers.2
But The Times also addresses the particular challenges this generation of parents has faced. Cultural factors include the crippling costs of higher education, an increasingly competitive job market, and a whole new world of technology. Considering the impact of 9/11 alone, having recently acknowledged its 16th anniversary, offers a deeper understanding of overprotective parenting tendencies.
According to the article: “As millennials grow into their working years, with many of them coming of age in the daunting job market that followed the Great Recession, parents are more likely to feel a proprietary stake in their children’s careers, said Ryan Webb, a recruiter and former human resources director at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. The hovering is abetted by a full complement of real-time communications options — from texting to Skype and social media — and fueled by the desire to see a return on investment for sending children to college in an age of escalating tuition.”
Responses to the article included a comment from one Emily Benson: “I am a college professor and career coach, and the ugly truth is that current college students and recent grads NEED a lot more support than previous generations. They have debt levels and pressures that are big and very real. Some parents do take this to an extreme, but many parents are just struggling to figure out how to help in a job market that they don’t understand.”
While these circumstances don’t condone helicopter parenting and its negative consequences, when camp directors, educators, and youth experts consider the big picture, it can help cultivate empathy for difficult conversations with parents.
Be willing to “go deep” with parents
In emotional situations, we all have a hard time articulating, or even understanding, our thoughts and feelings. This makes communication with parents challenging, since there are no higher stakes than a child.
Empathy can pave the way to productive conversations with parents. A sincere willingness to engage and understand a parent’s point-of-view cultivates trust. Millennial parents, especially, “are open to deep discussions about rationale, the philosophical underpinnings of a decision, and the professional analysis around it,” says Aaron C. Cooper, head of an independent school in New Jersey.3
When parents hover, it’s your chance to help them understand your mission for their children at a deeper level, to answer their questions, to consider their ideas, and to explain the best ways you’ve experienced parental support.
Tap into the power of story
If a conversation feels like it’s dying a slow death, shift course by asking parents about the experiences that shaped their own lives. What circumstances have they faced that are similar to what their child is experiencing? How did they handle them? How were their lives affected? If a parent is reluctant to share, you could offer an anecdote from your own life. As you help parents resist the urgent compulsion to relieve a child’s immediate pain, they may gain perspective and recognize the ways their children can grow from difficult circumstances — like the parents themselves have probably done.
Finally, take heart — every generation has a way of surviving its own peculiar culture. And over-parenting is not a new phenomenon. Again from The New York Times: “Franklin D. Roosevelt’s overbearing mother, Sara, bought and built a townhouse for her son and his young wife, Eleanor, with another one for herself right next door. President Roosevelt turned out pretty well anyway.”4