Helicopter Parents: Bad for Kids' Health

Anxious, obese, depressed, incapable, narcissistic, fragile. Just some of the terms being used to describe many of today’s young people. Concerned by such reports, conscientious parents (aka helicopter parents) vow to work even harder to help their kids avoid such labels and, in the process, doom their kids to that very fate.

In what can only be considered one of the great ironies of the modern era, parents everywhere agitate over their kids’ safety, health, wellbeing, academics, and professional futures, and in so doing behave in ways almost certain to ensure their kids will struggle with all of the above.

The concept of the helicopter parent isn’t new, of course – the term was first used in 1990. But despite numerous studies and books showcasing the endless ways it’s bad for kids, there is little evidence to suggest parents are grounding themselves. While most seem to agree it’s a problem, few if any believe they are contributing to it.

Unfortunately, a growing number of young adults – unable to cope with the ‘real world’ that exists beyond the control of mom and dad – suggests helicopter parents are creating an entire generation of emotionally fragile young people incapable of doing much of anything for themselves.

“It’s so sad,” says psychologist Michael Ungar, director of the ResilienceResearch Centre at Dalhousie University and a blogger for Psychology Today. “The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks.”

Protecting Children from Childhood

In one of the most recent studies on the dangers of helicopter parenting, researchers watched as 422 two-year-olds played with toys in the presence of their mothers. The study’s authors paid particular attention to the kids whose mothers assumed more control of the playing process and subsequent cleanup of the play area.

The researchers then followed up with the kids in later years and found that, to no one’s surprise, the kids whose mothers assumed more control exhibited less control over their emotions.

This practice of over-parenting doesn’t end in childhood, either, with a growing number of colleges and universities reporting huge numbers of parents being intimately involved in the application and matriculation process – including graduate school.

A Culture of Fear

And it’s not just the parents. A growing segment of society has anointed itself a kind of parent patrol, routinely calling the police because a child is spotted – unsupervised! – in the wilds of suburbia. Some notable examples:

  1. Eight-year-old Dorothy Widen was anonymously reported to the police for walking her dog, Marshmallow, unaccompanied by an adult. While the police, understandably, did not file any charges, Child Protective Services did in fact launch an ultimately fruitless investigation.
  2. Mom Kim Brooks left her 4-year-old unattended in a car for a few minutes on a cool, comfortable day. She was reported and eventually hauled into court and forced to perform community service. It also prompted the 40-year-old to write a book, aptly titled, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.
  3. And our personal favorite is the case of Peter and Danielle Meitiv, who allowed their 10- and 6-year-old children to spend time alone at a playground before walking home. Intercepted by three – count them, THREE – police officers, the children were forced to accept a ride home in a police cruiser and a Child Protective Services investigation was launched.

Across the nation, parents who dare to allow their children to grow up in the ‘free range’ style of their own childhood, are being outed by parenting vigilantes who apparently equate unattended children to unsafe children.

Well-Intentioned, But Misguided

To no one’s surprise, kids coming of age in such an environment perceive the world as a dangerous, fearful place filled with danger and risk. After all, if mom and dad are constantly monitoring a child’s every move, there must be real reason to be afraid.

And it’s not just anxiety that is setting in with kids, though that’s certainly a biggie. Over the past few years a growing number of studies have illustrated the very real downsides to helicopter parenting and the culture that feeds into it. Risks that include:

DepressionA study by the University of Mary Washington found that college students raised by helicopter parents were far more likely to report depression, anxiety, and a lack of satisfaction with life.

Over-Medicated – Parents who cushion every blow, remove all of life’s edges, and soften every landing produce kids who are more sensitive to pain and hardship of any kind and, by extension, are more likely to reach for medications that mute or block such feelings.

Incapable & Entitled – Coddled kids come of age with the perfect storm of being unable to withstand criticism of any kind, overcome obstacles, and lacking self-confidence – yet, ironically, also feeling entitled.

Unhealthy – Because mom and dad constantly monitored their child’s every cough and sniffle, the offspring of helicopter parents have been found to be less healthy than their counterparts, because by they’ve developed no skills for caring for themselves.

Needy – Parents who behave as personal concierges to their children may give those kids an early advantage, but over time – particularly by adulthood – doom their kids to struggles with autonomy, procrastination, and dissatisfaction with life.

Your Kids Are Safe, Really

Let’s get right to it: it has never been safer to be a kid in America. Never. And there’s hard science behind this.

But thanks to social media and a 24/7 global news cycle feeding billions of phones along with the click-bait headlines designed to grab your attention, it’s also never been easier to be scared to death by the myriad dangers out there. Again, never.

So let’s pick one of a parent’s worst fears: a child goes missing. The news hits social media channels where it goes ‘viral’ because, let’s face it, it’s a sensational story for which our minds are genetically primed to read and heed.

But the thing is, the odds of a child being abducted are exceedingly rare – especially by a stranger. Further, the rate of missing kids has fallen by more than 40% over the past 20 years even as the population has increased by 30%.

Moving on, we learn that 96% of missing kids are actually runaways and the few that are abducted are actually with a family member or someone who knows them (think estranged spouse here). In fact, just .1% of the tiny number of people who go missing each year can be attributed to a stranger.

Yet to witness today’s helicopter parent, children at play in a nearby wood, meadow, or park are chum for countless abductors waiting to pounce. But statistically speaking, your child would have to stay in that same spot for roughly 750,000 years for that abduction to take place.

The same rates and trends apply to all the other dangers associated with childhood, including the #1 killer and maimer of kids, good old-fashioned accidents. The point being, your kids are safe. Very, very safe.

Parents: Please Relax

The irony, in case you haven’t picked up on it, is that the biggest threat facing many kids is none other than their own parents. Particularly those who hover, coddle, and ‘make everything alright’ to the point their kids don’t have to do anything for themselves.

What do child development experts (not to mention good old-fashioned common sense) tell us: to relax and let go of the reins a bit. Kids need to suffer a little, to fall down and learn that they and they alone can brush themselves off and get back up.

Remember, mom and dad, you aren’t going to be around forever. And, let’s be honest, you aren’t going to want the kids around forever either. So as we enter 2019, how about a resolution to ground the helicopters and let kids be kids?

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