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The Mythology of the Helicopter Parent

What over-protective parents are really afraid of.

Oh, they’re real, these parents who believe that no harm should ever befall their children, who protect them from all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, locking their children in the baby-proofed cells of child gates, monitors, visual contact, and eventually cell phones. They complain to teachers about their children’s grades, to coaches about their roles on the team, to each other about the educational system. They exist; the mythology has to do with their motives, with their own myths about the world.

Typical helicopter parents are not a combination of Mr. Rogers and Opie’s Aunt Bea, warm undifferentiated masses of protective sweetness. Instead, they are irritable, frustrated people who do not handle their irritability well. They may be frustrated by the fact that the world does not kneel down to their little prince or princess, or by the fact that their little darlings don’t live up to their press. They fall in love with, and promote, an idealized image of their children and of themselves and become intolerant of the merely human or the ordinarily enjoyable. The problem with millennials is not that everything they ever smeared on paper went up on Grandma’s refrigerator. Their problem with criticism and learning to manage an indifferent world is that anything short of perfection is riddled with disappointment and humiliation. Millennials care more for praise than actual improvement not because praise was so available at home but because it masked a pot of rageful rejection.

Although certainly activated by the availability of news about child abductions and other horrors from anywhere in the world, helicopter parents are primarily motivated to protect children from the parents’ own aggression. This is wise, since 95% of child abuse is committed by people the child knows and trusts. However, refusing to acknowledge their ambivalence about their own children makes them slop on the sweetness to prove to themselves and others that there is no ambivalence. And how could you not feel ambivalent about someone who requires so much? Unless you are completely devoid of an inner life, a desire to work, a love of friendship, constructive aggression, and a sex life, not to mention a desire for peace and quiet. How could you not be ambivalent? Even Jesus forwent children despite cultural expectations to procreate. According to tradition, Buddha up and left his kids to find enlightenment. Abraham readily agreed to sacrifice his child to God. I doubt that any parent is holier than those three.

So to me, the millennials are not simply spoiled. They were raised on a precipice between adoration and rejection. Until parents got the idea that they are somehow responsible for keeping their children safe from all disappointment and injury, parents would express the hatred that always haunts love by telling their children to go outside and play. They would express their desire to be rid of their children by making them go to bed at night. They would talk at meals and expect the children not to interrupt unless they could enhance the conversation. These simple methods of managing parental aggression produced children who didn’t think that a lack of praise meant that their teachers despised them. It produced children who themselves understood that ambivalence is expected and perfect love is impossible.

When parents cannot acknowledge their negative feelings about their children, they find it difficult to impose structure and limits. These require constructive aggression, but parents who cannot acknowledge destructive impulses toward their kids have to eschew all aggression to make sure they don’t slip. Instead, they imagine outside horrors afflicting their kids and set themselves up as the perennial heroes, taking on the monstrous teachers and coaches and child abductors. The kids learn that parental doting is fear-based, not affection-based, and they become cautious about wandering outside the doting zone.

Especially galling to me is to watch these kids grow up to be what I call helicopter therapists. They try to help patients not by showing them that their pain and fears can be taken in stride; they instead try to insulate their patients from frustration and disappointment. They extend sessions to avoid having to send patients away. They coo and nod so their patients can avoid (rather than confront) their fears of an indifferent or uncaring therapist. They rarely or never confront their patients with what they are really feeling or really motived by and accept their patients’ narratives instead, even though the reason for therapy is almost always that their patients’ narratives aren’t working for them.