A Response to Latest Criticism of Helicopter Parenting
We can learn from our mistakes without mistakes being necessary to learn.
Posted Jul 14, 2020
Dr. Vanessa LoBue recently wrote a Psychology Today post titled, “Why Helicopter Parenting Fosters Failure” (July 13, 2020). Compared to many posts that criticize helicopter or snowplow parenting, LoBue provided a more balanced or careful argument while still pointing out the potential problems with helicopter parenting. LoBue also provided more research references to support her statements. It was a strong piece.
I respond here with a few points to broaden the discussion or to highlight where LoBue’s statements might be less supported. I don’t mean to single out LoBue but more so to highlight some general issues in this field of study. I don’t have LoBue’s expertise in developmental psychology, but I’ve written two Psychology Today posts that seem relevant. I paste excerpts from those posts below. In addition, one of LoBue’s central references by Schiffrin and Liss (2017) may not provide as clear a picture as LoBue described.
First, let me again emphasize LoBue’s careful writing. In particular, she acknowledged the good intentions and potential positive outcomes of parents who may fall under the “helicopter” label. She defined helicopter parents as those who “tend” to remove obstacles, as opposed to saying “every” obstacle as some authors do but which is a strawman.
LoBue also appropriately wrote that certain parenting behaviors were “associated” with certain child outcomes, as opposed to saying that those parenting behaviors caused those outcomes. Yet the title of the post used cause-effect language in saying that “helicopter parenting fosters failure,” and the term “outcome” also sounds like the parenting style played a causal role.
Correlation Does Not Mean Causation
In my post “The Bias of Seeing Cause in Correlation,” I provided the classic example of crime rates being correlated with ice cream consumption but not causing it. But I later moved to examples that pertain to parenting styles.
OK, now for the trickier and more subtle examples. What if people with Characteristic A are more likely to show Characteristic B? Or what if people with Characteristic A are more likely to end up in Situation B? Does A cause B? Not necessarily. Perhaps these examples don’t seem tricky at the moment, but let’s fill in A and B with some specifics.
When children have parents who fit the “helicopter” label, those parents are Characteristic A. The negative child outcomes are Characteristic B. Despite the amount of research here, it’s correlational and technically does not allow a cause-effect conclusion.
When the correlational research is longitudinal, as some of it is, that gets us closer to a cause-effect conclusion, and other analyses can sometimes rule out third variables as alternative explanations. I believe the general conclusion that helicopter parenting plays some role, but it bears repeating for readers that there are limitations to correlational research and that “outcome” is a standard term that doesn’t automatically reflect a cause-effect process. In particular, certain child behaviors or dispositions might cause parents to behave differently and not just the other way around.
Do We Really Need to Make Mistakes to Learn Something?
LoBue wrote that “It turns out that children need [sic] to make mistakes to learn,” and provided a great example in how children learn to walk. But in general, as sensible as this idea sounds, it might be an overstatement to say making mistakes is necessary to learn. I wonder if there is confusion here with the separate and much more supported statement that we need to learn from our mistakes.
From my post “Are We Overreacting to "Snowplow Parenting?":
Snowplow parents are usually described as parents who clear their child’s way of every obstacle, or shield their child from any stress or failure. Helicopter parents are similarly described as wanting to “ensure their children’s success” (Darlow et al., 2017). A common criticism of all these parents includes the adage that we learn and grow from our mistakes and failures.
Although mistakes and failures can lead to learning or growth, that doesn’t mean growth requires personal blunders. That’s a cool thing about being human—we can grow in other ways such as through observational learning and listening. In other words, blunders may be sufficient for growth but not necessary. (Of course, some blunders can be traumatic and do not lead to growth.)
Don’t get me wrong—if a child makes a mistake, there is a learning opportunity. It’s okay to make mistakes. But to criticize a parent for preventing a child’s mistake because it would prevent learning seems like the converse error. Fortunately, learning does not require the pain or embarrassment of mistakes (even if mistakes can help). I didn’t have to burn my own hand on the stove to learn not to touch it when it’s hot.
I advise parents to be open to advice—but not to judge themselves too harshly when considering whether it applies to their own situation.
Schiffrin & Liss (2017)
LoBue provided many research references to support her statements. Although I couldn’t find Perez-Edgar’s (2019) full reference in the reference section, I did find and read another central reference by Schiffrin and Liss (2017) which LoBue cited in saying that “helicopter parenting is associated with lower academic performance in children.”
However, Schiffrin and Liss didn’t actually measure academic performance but rather “achievement-related outcomes.” (Schiffrin and Liss did cite other research that appeared to measure actual academic performance.) Also, the correlations LoBue reported only pertained to parenting style as reported by the children whereas there were no such correlations when parenting style was measured by maternal reports.
I don’t mean to cherry-pick Schiffrin and Liss’s post, which had many strengths, but it seemed most relevant in addressing the issue of helicopter parenting fostering “failure.” I am not commenting on other negative outcomes cited by LoBue such as higher levels of anxiety and depression and less effective coping skills.
On the issue of whether helicopter parenting can foster or cause worse academic outcomes, Schiffrin and Liss acknowledged that “the causal direction of the relationship remains unclear due to the cross-sectional nature of the research. It is possible that students who struggle more in school necessitate more parental involvement, which results in helicopter parenting… It is likely that the relationship goes in both directions.”
Helicopter parenting carries risks for children. I don’t mean to contradict LoBue’s general argument. But I hope parents who think they fit the “helicopter” label are not too quick to judge themselves harshly given some of the complexities I tried to outline above, or at least I hope we try not to judge parents whom we don’t personally know based on limited information about their children or how the parents treat their children out of sight at home. (Not that I think LoBue made any such judgments.)
LoBue concluded in a very measured way that I appreciated. She provided some research-based advice that parents can consider, and she wrote that “sometimes what’s best for promoting [children’s] success is letting them experience their own failures.” “Sometimes” is very fair.
Veronica Darlow et al., “The Relationship between Helicopter Parenting and Adjustment to College,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 26 (2017): 2291–98.
Vanessa LoBue, “Why Helicopter Parenting Fosters Failure,” Psychology Today, July 13, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-baby-scientist/202007/why-helicopter-parenting-fosters-failure.
Holly H. Schiffrin and Miriam Liss, “The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on Academic Motivation,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 26 (2017): 1472-80.
Daniel R. Stalder, “Are We Overreacting to ‘Snowplow Parenting?’”, Psychology Today, March 31, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/bias-fundamentals/201903/are-we-overreacting-snowplow-parenting.
Daniel R. Stalder, “The Bias of Seeing Cause in Correlation,” Psychology Today, August 1, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/bias-fundamentals/201808/the-bias-seeing-cause-in-correlation.