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When Does Mothering Become Smothering? Part 2

Is invasive parenting here to stay?

If you Google overprotective parents, you will get more than 46,000 returns. The Google search page brings up entries such as "Over-protective parents are denying youngsters a proper childhood," "Stop Being An Overprotective Parent - Hypnosis," and "Overprotective parents hurt kids in more ways than one." Though this exercise is hardly scientific, it nevertheless reflects the high level of focus on one area perceived as problem parenting.

Boston Globe reporter Don Aucoin reported that while extreme helicopter parenting is "horrible," and that in moderate instances "a quiet reappraisal of helicopter parents is underway." In most cases, says Aucoin, "[helicopter parenting] increased closeness between parents and kids," and occurred "among healthy students, not unhealthy ones."

Aucoin (and much of the positive data on helicopters) refers largely to college students and the results are murky. In 2007 the National Survey of Student Engagement reported, "Although students with involved parents reported higher levels of engagement, deep learning and greater educational gains, they had significantly lower grades. Perhaps the reason some parents intervened was to support a student who was having academic difficulties - thus the correlation with lower grades. Unfortunately, we cannot determine the extent parental interventions were related to academic or other matters."

But while parents can play a positive role helping children surmount occasional academic speed bumps, it can be a slippery slope from supportive stewardship to intrusive concern. It is important to remember college students are a few short years away from the time they will be called upon to make life-changing decisions. Parents who have shielded children from the process and responsibilities of decision-making have done them no favors.

Recently in London's Sunday Times, private schoolmaster Alistair Macnaughton notes that helicopter parents are becoming more and more the norm. They "rush forward to try to prevent anything bad ever happening," he says. "Helicopter parents are often blessed with a sense of (almost papal) infallibility as far as their own opinions are concerned ... [and] ... cast themselves in a heroic mould as defenders of the faith against those who they think may be tyrannising and oppressing their (allegedly) helpless offspring." He concludes that, by not allowing children to learn from mistakes, helicopter parents are "a threat rather than a benefit to their children."

Helicopter Parents Get Grounded

The bad news is it does appear Macnaughton's opinion is correct: Helicopter parenting is an expanding universe. Patricia Somers, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas-Austin, estimates "60% to 70% of parents are involved in some kind of helicoptering behavior." She studied more than 50 officials from 10 four-year public colleges nationwide and found the trend equally pervasive across all ethnic and socio-economic levels. This is particularly concerning if Macnaughton is also right that when helicopter parents swoop in, "it is the children caught in the middle who will end up, once again, copping the worst of the flak."

The good news is, however, that a better understanding of the phenomenon may assist intrusive parents who would like to throttle back, that is to say avoid being over-involved in children's' lives. One key could lie with understanding motives. Before intervening in childrens' lives, it's always a good idea for parents to ask whose needs are being served. Is it parents' desire to shield their children or to have children achieve by going in the direction they couldn't or didn't?

Long Island, N.Y., parenting book author Adele Faber points out, "the desire to be needed is very powerful in parents. To go from that all-powerful parent whose kids desperately need you to someone who sees a child as a separate individual is a very hard journey."

Will the next generation of parents be more mindful and heed the advice of people like Macnaughton and others as discussed in Part 1 or is invasive parenting here to stay?

Copyright 2009 by Susan Newman

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