CULTURE WATCH: Helicopter Parenting

By Wendell Cantrell

“Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

I have been following the trend of hyper-concerned parents that literally hover (a helicopter term) over their kids even through their college years. One author commented that, “You fit the description if you are texting your college-age son about the best choice of cuisine at the campus deli.” You might already be thinking that college is a time to be letting go, but many parents are just warming up. Ask any college administrator about continued parental involvement and you will hear tales of parents repeatedly calling their child’s professors to protest Johnny’s C in Sociology that could damage his shot at grad school. There is ongoing concern that this issue of college students’ parental dependency is bearing fruit when youngsters arrive on campus without the ability to make their own decisions and basically grapple with issues of daily adult life.  How did we get to this point of keeping kids in a longer than normal state of dependency?

Although I don’t regularly read Psychology Today, I recently ran across some quotes from an author named Hara Estroff Marano. She had written an article called “A Nation of Wimps”1 It should be read by any parents or grandparents concerned about the results of hyper-protective parenting. She went on to write a book of the same name but I haven’t read it. Nothing in the article states her beliefs. What do you think of the concept that kids really do need to feel badly (emotionally) sometimes, because through bad experiences, they learn how to cope? If you agree with this, welcome to the minority. This is a foreign concept to this generation of hyper-protectors who were likely coddled by the baby boomer generation. Marano explains, “Although error and experimentation are the true mothers of success, parents are taking pains to remove failures from the equation.” We are seeing schools that have stopped allowing that terrible game of tag, where being “it” can create a self-esteem issue. Also Dodge Ball and Red Rover are coming under fire across our country.  How dare we have games that “encourage aggression,” or reward the swift and clever kids. We need to get real about this. Games have winners and losers and sometimes the losers even have to sit out – but guess what, it isn’t the end of the world! At least so far, I haven’t seen any statistics to prove that losses at kids’ games can lead to any serious mental health issues.

This is going to sound heretical, but a strong case can be made that we must allow our children to experience failure. This isn’t a concept that you hear much today. Instead, we see our kids or grandkids as little trophies to be polished. We see life as a competitive game for kids and we are determined that they finish at the top even if it means cutting corners, changing rules or (heaven forbid) doing the work ourselves.

We, as Christian parents, can fall into the same trap of worldly success being the hallmark of achievement. We certainly want to encourage excellence, but we must define it in biblical terms consistent with the gospel. Our primary concern should be that they are raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (see verse above) and are pointed toward God’s purpose for their life, and this may include risk. A life devoted to the cause of the gospel should be every parent’s goal for his or her child.2

Morano’s article should serve as a dire warning that we must avoid protecting our children from the sometimes painful process of growing into responsible adulthood. We certainly must guard them from danger and physically harmful activities, but we must not shield them from reality.  Part of our “training up” should include dealing with the problems in life, and not evading them.  I am certainly no expert in parenting and made my share of mistakes in the process. My wife and I were, by God’s grace, able to raise two children who were totally independent by college graduation. We now are prayerfully observing the raising of our eight grandchildren (five of them by SKYPE as they are in South Africa). These kids are not being coddled, nor are their immediate friends. When they visit “Nana and Dat,” they sometimes get to experience hard work, routine disappointments (like losing in games), and even an occasional skinned knee. Our goal is to “keep the wimps at bay, raising troops for come what may.”

Questions or comments about this article may be directed to culturewatch@dentonbible.org.

1)    Psychology Today, “A Nation of Wimps” Nov-Dec 2004
2)    Culture Shift by R. Albert Mohler