Helicopter parent is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days, rarely as a compliment. It refers to the idea that modern parents hover over their children, vigilantly paying attention and ready to swoop in to take control at the first sign of trouble. I see them all the time, not just in my research on families but in my own life as a parent who likes to see himself as not helicopter parenting, but, really, does any helicopter parent think they are helicoptering? The point is that many American parents have become—or are thought to have become—overly involved in managing their children’s lives.
As a sociologist who studies child development with a focus on parenting, I unpack, contextualize, and complicate widely discussed ideas like helicopter parenting in Families Now. In fact, I would argue that using parenting—and all the messy interactions and conflicted feelings it entails—as a window into the state of the family and the country is precisely what makes Families Now unique and necessary. I think that helicopter parenting—any kind of parenting, really—is so much more than what goes on between parent and child. For example, sections of Chapters 11, 12, and 13 of Families Now delve into the modern phenomenon of overly involved parents to connect such a personal experience to three macro-level forces:
- The growing economic uncertainty of life in a globalized world, which motivates anxious parents to increasingly attempt to exert control over the children’s lives to ensure (in their minds) that they will be OK.
- The widening socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequality that results in helicopter-type parenting working very well for families who already have power and status—helping their already advantaged children gain more advantages in schools and elsewhere—while being far harder to achieve and less likely to have the same impact for other families.
- The convergence of the cultural evolution in the perceived starting point of adulthood and the insecurity of the modern labor market that increases the length of time that young people are dependent on their parents, which means that helicopter parenting is happening far past childhood and well into the 20s and 30s (and maybe even beyond!).
To continue this discussion, pose two scenarios to your students: 1) a sports team suspends a high-performing 13-year old for speaking disrespectfully to officials, and 2) a 22-year old does well on tests in a college math course but is given a low grade because of poor attendance. Now, break the students into smaller discussion groups and pose the following questions:
- What are concrete examples of parental reactions to these situations that you would characterize as helicopter parenting?
- Can you articulate where the “line” is between helicopter and non-helicopter reactions?
- Does changing the identity of the young person in question from male to female, black to white, or low-income to high-income change how you think that parents would react or how “successful” their reactions would be in terms of serving their children’s interests?
Bring the class together to determine where the consensus and disagreements arise, also providing opportunities for willing students to reflect on where their own parents fall in the spectrum of helicopter (or non-helicopter) parenting.