Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Scaffolding Is Good, Hovering Is Bad: A Guide For Parents

Worrying about your child doesn't mean you're hovering

It's the time of year when dozens of news pieces, bloggers, college deans, and supermarket tellers rant about helicopter parents.

I've done it myself, just about this time last year, when the contrast between middle schoolers wandering confidently off to school alone and college students hovered protectively over by parents seemed particularly striking.  Although research suggests that college students whose parents keep frequent contact with them do just as well (in fact, better) than students whose parents are less involved, many pundits - myself included - have expressed skepticism.

This year, however, I've gained a somewhat different perspective.  My eldest son is off in the Peace Corps, living without water and with very dodgy electricity (houses should not be wired by cutting apart extension cords and taping them together), traveling through patently dangerous places with a still developing knowledge of the language and culture, taking bus rides with barely sober drivers on roads sometimes blocked by sleeping rhinos, and very, very far from home.  He says he will never call any bathroom or latrine in the US 'sketchy' ever again.  And did I mention the spiders?

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Contact is sparse.  I find myself haunting the blogs of the other volunteers who are with him, hoping to glean some news of what he's doing and jubilant when I catch a glimpse of him in a picture that someone else has posted.  And I know that other parents of the volunteers in the group are too.

Military parents

Six of the 70 something kids who graduated from high school with my son are in the military serving overseas.  I run into their parents at the grocery store and the post office, and they talk to me about the same thing - their worries, how much they look forward to letters, looking forward to vists, and the nightmares when you expect to hear from someone and you don't.  Or you can't reach someone you think you should be able to.

Information can be both a blessing and a curse.  Yes, we all want to hear enough to know they're happy and safe.  We want to share their lives.  But do we want to know that they've just had a buddy killed in a firefight? That they're going out to diffuse a bomb?  That they've just been sexually harrassed for the fourth time that morning by a drunk as they've walked down the street? 

Yes, of course, because you want to be supportive, to listen, and to be there for them.  But knowing also brings on worry if you're used to hearing from them and suddenly - for any number of reasons - you don't.   

No one should accuse a worried military parent of hovering.

So what makes a helicopter parent?

After long thought, I've come to think that it's not being worried about a  child that defines helicopter parenting.  Being a concerned, involved parent is a good thing.  Parents whose kids - child, adult, or in-between - are sick, at risk, or in need will always be legitimately concerned.  Just as children become concerned when their parents are at risk or in need.

(A note of explanation and apology . . . I'm going to refer to all offspring - newborns to adults - as kids.  Because to parents, even 60 year old offspring are still their children.)

I've come to believe that three things makes helicopter parents different than their equally concerned peers:

  • Concern and worry are disproportionate to the risk faced. If your college student seems happy, is doing okay in classes, and talks about going out and doing things with their friends, but you feel obsessively worried about them, constantly feel the need to check in, and text just to make sure they're all right, you need to think about why. If your child is happy with their place on the soccer team, but you're worried about their feelings, maybe you should step back and think.
  • Involvement stems from the needs of the PARENT not the needs of the CHILD. Are you stepping in to have your child's math class changed because of your child's educational needs or because all your friends' kid are in the more prestigious one? Are you calling them on Friday night or texting them in the middle of the day because you think they're lonely or because you are? Is the help you're providing on the science project really helping them learn or keeping you from being embarrassed?

More perniciously, do you  want to help so you feel needed and important, or because they really can't do it themselves?

  • Parents step in to 'fix' things that the child should be doing themselves. If a first grader is having problems with class, a responsible parent might talk to the teacher, because that's probably not something first grader can negotiate themselves and help might necessitate the parent working with the child after school. But - certainly at the beginning stages - a high school can talk to a teacher. And a college student certainly SHOULD.

Scaffolding is a term used by Vygotsky to refer to the structure that adults provide to children as they develop new skills.  The idea is that a light framework helps to support new skills as the child is stretching beyond their current, stable abilities.  They can reach higher because the scaffolding provides extra support.  When the child can do it themselves, the support is removed.  And just like a building supported by scaffolding during construction, stands on its own.

Helicopter parents don't provide scaffolding and help their children do things independently.  They do it for them.  If the child doesn't push the parent away, they become weaker and less independent, just as a splinted leg grows weaker through lack of use.

If you're providing scaffolding after the child can stand on their own, you're helicoptering.

How to Help Without Hovering

What most good parents want for the kids is for them to be safe, happy, and accomplished.  We want to PROTECT them from pain and from harm.  Even though we know we can't.  And even though we know that most growth comes through encountering and overcoming challenge. 

What's a parent to do?

The single most important thing for parents to do is wait to be needed I remember walking with mother down a neighborhood sidewalk when my much younger sister ran happily ahead.  I started getting nervous - worried she'd be off and away.  When I looked at my mom, she just said 'Watch.  She'll stop.'  And she did.  Around five steps further, and my sister turned around and looked, checking that my mother was still close enough that she felt safe.  When my mother stopped, instead of running away, my sister ran back and touched base, then skipped a little ahead again.  My mother knew that my sister would touch base when she felt a little too far away to be comfortable.  She trusted that my sister knew how to ask for help.  And my sister trusted that my mother would be there to provide it.

When parents step in too quickly to do things that children can do themselves, their kids tend to push them away.  Offering too much unasked for advice often functions the same way.  But when parents wait for kids to ask and then offer suggestions for things the child can do themselves - or works with them cooperatively - the child can move forward on their own.

It can work the same way in college.  Offering ideas of strategies or pointing out available resources is a great way of helping children help themselves.

Children learn to walk on their own. We can help them balance, but they aren't walking until we've let go. And yes, they're going to fall. A painful lesson all successful parents learn.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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