Overprotective Parents: Helicopters and Snowploughs
"Every Breath You Take ..."
Posted Nov 23, 2016
A typical reaction to the loss of autonomy after becoming a parent is to helicopter your child’s life, watching their every move.
Parents are more involved in their children’s lives than ever. They whir and fret relentlessly and hyper-vigilantly over their precious pearls, oversteering and micromanaging their lives. They secretly want to wrap their children in bubble wrap and hide them in a secret cabinet at their South Beach mansion but since they can’t, they take different measures. They dress their darlings in the cutest outfits and latest gadgets, monitor their daily intake of fruits and vegetables, pay a private psychiatrist to testify that Kiddo’s IQ is above the 130 mark that will allow her entrance into the school’s gifted program, arrange Mandarin after-school classes and a pre-algebra math tutor on weekdays, shuttle the little prodigy to violin lessons on Saturday morning in their four-seat Lamborghini, restrict television time to thirty minutes on weekends only, schedule play dates with other helicopter moms who wear Louboutin stilettos and own a Hermes Birkin handbag, supervise all internet, iPad and iPhone activity, complete munchkin's homework and science fair projects, check her grades online hourly, and regularly tout “doctor,” “lawyer,” “Harvard,” and “Porsche” at her.
It is perfectionistic, high-performance parenting. Helicopter parents are physically hyper-present in their children’s lives, which ensures that they are materializing their own fantasy of how they want their children and their lives to be. Children are seen as extensions of their parents, projects to be perfected. As a result, it’s physically painful for helicopters to hand over their pearls to caregivers and teachers, the bad people who inadvertently take over their job, corrupt their babies and fail to coat them in a protective layer of hyper-parenting.
Helicopters don’t let their children out of sight. Unless they own a drone. Yes, you read me correctly. A drone! Chris Early, a techie dad from Tennessee, watches his daughter Katie walk to school via a drone that keeps an eye on the girl from the sky. Early reported that he did it in part to “let [Katie] know that daddy is always watching.”
Along with being helicopters, many overprotective parents ensure that every hindrance is cleared out of their kid’s way. Acting like Hollywood agents, they put together their children’s lives. On top of that, some over-protectors step in to remove all obstacles, acting as if they were their child’s security guard while ensuring Little Punk is perfect, smart, hilarious, bright, kind and generous. This clearance approach to parenting is also known as snowploughing. Like a snowplough, this specimen of parents clears the path for their children, so they can slither unhindered through life. Snowploughs advocate for their kids constantly, negotiating better grades and special treatment, hoping to shape their precious snowflake into Harvard material.
Many helicopters are snowploughs, and vice versa. But they can, and do, come apart. Snowploughs may let their seventeen-year old go to clubs with her friends several times a week and yet fight like a tiger when she gets bad grades on her freshman mid-term exams. Unlike tiger mom Amy Chua, snowploughs don’t punish their children; they arm-wrestle with the teacher.
Conversely, helicopters may hover over head yet not swipe away external obstacles, except by ensuring that little snowflake takes pre-algebra in 6th grade, is tutored in French and mandarin and spends at least two hours a day completing college-level English and math assignments after finishing her homework.
Helicoptering and snowploughing aren’t just reserved for parents with children in diapers. The current generation of neurotic parents have taken helicoptering to the next level. They monitor their kids and micromanage their lives well into middle age. The kids being middle-aged, mind you! The inventions of cell phones, Facetime, Skype, Google Hangout, and more, have made it possible for parents to continue to govern their children’s lives even when they are not physically together. They can monitor them when they are away at camp, when they are in college and need to choose college courses and even when they are applying for jobs. At University of Miami I occasionally have parents of college students complain about their grown children’s grades and academic progress. They expect the $60,000 they pay for a private university education to guarantee top grades, regardless of how and what Kiddo is doing in school. Anything less than an A is an unacceptable return on their investment.
Despite seeing that, I am genuinely puzzled when I see one snowplough at my daughter’s school, Amanda, hand out end-of-fifth-grade gifts to all of her daughter’s teachers several weeks before the school year is over.
“Why do you give them gifts several weeks ahead of time?” I ask bewildered.
The snowplough, a beautiful tall blonde woman in her forties wearing black Louboutin pumps, looks at me like I was born yesterday.
“Isn’t it obvious?” There is a long awkward pause when I don’t respond.
She eventually continues: “How else could it affect your kid’s grades? If you wait until the last day, nothing is gained.”
I nod, but not in agreement. I am in shock. So, we now buy our children’s grades, it seems. Just buy your kids’ teachers some nice gifts, and they will reciprocate with top grades. Doesn’t matter what or how kiddo is doing.
Here’s a little secret: getting good grades as a result of mommy completing essays and school projects or mommy sweet talking teachers or buying grades might work all the way through high school. College? Uh-uh. Mommy might try. But Kiddo will eventually be in for a surprise. Snowploughed broods never develop a sense of the rigors that achievement requires. So once mommy can’t buy all straight As for her offspring, her offspring’s GPA is going to plummet.
That happened to my student Angelo, the youngest son of a affluent Miami-based Hispanic family with lots of old money. He took my class the first semester of his freshman year. After getting a straight A on his first quiz, he entered a fraternity mid semester and began partying with his frat brothers and typically never made it to class the next day. His straight As prior to college were likely bought by his mother, as I soon enough would find out.
After he fails the second quiz in the course, his mother shows up with a fine bottle of single-malt scotch. Never mind that I don’t drink scotch, single-malt or not. She puts it on my office desk prior to sitting down at the meeting she has requested. She explains to me that it is hard for her to follow her son’s progress in the course, when all she has to go by are the in-class quizzes rather than a combination of different assignments that can be completed at home.
“In the past, I have always been able to help him with his homework and assignments but your class doesn’t have homework or assignments,” she complains.
“What do you mean?” I look at her in bewilderment. “Of course, my course has homework and assignments.”
“I am so sorry,” the snowplough replies and genuinely looks like she is sorry, “it just wasn’t clearly stated on the syllabus.”
“Sure, it is.” I pull up the syllabus on the screen. “It specifies readings and reading questions for each class right there.”
“Oh readings!” She nods. “I knew that. What I meant was writing assignments and school projects he can take home, so we can go over them together.”
“Right! But this isn’t a writing course. There aren’t any writing assignments. Just the readings and the quizzes.”
“But how am I going to help him?” She asks with desperation in her voice.
“He needs to help himself,” I reply serenely. “He is in college now, not third grade. If you want to help him, tell him to stop partying and show up for class.”
Her lips tied together as if she is holding back tears or a snarky remark, she gets up and calmly thank me for meeting with her.
"You forgot your bottle of scotch,” I say, as she exits.
“You can keep it, even ...” she doesn’t finish her sentence.
I finish it for her, in my thoughts. “... even though you weren’t able to buy your son better grades.”
College grades aren’t for sale. But this doesn’t prevent helicopters and snowploughs from micromanaging their kids’ lives. Some parents buy a second home in the town of their child’s college to oversee paper writing and do their laundry, or they simply move with their children to college. Such was the case for Lori Osterberg and her husband. When things didn’t go smoothly for their daughter as a freshman in college they relocated from Denver to Portland, Oregon and bought a condo for the three of them. The kid missed her parents, her dog and the security of living at home. As good helicopter parents you go out of your way to support your children, even when that means starting a new life in a foreign city in a another part of the world.
The helicoptering doesn’t stop after graduation. After college graduation, parents prepare their precious offsprings for interviews and negotiate their salaries, some even submit resumes on their children's behalf. How long does the hovering continue? Hard to say. Occasionally worried moms have called me to negotiate grades for their forty-something grown child enrolled in one of my courses.
“Do I helicopter my kid, too?” I ask myself one afternoon as I am about to pick up Becky. I realize dreadfully that the answer is “yes.” At least looking back. Influenced by the Spanish culture in Miami, I have slowly come to the realization that my daughter thrives only when I tone down my helicoptering and snowploughing.
She rewards me with FaceTime calls from her Disney field trip, and four-page long text messages while I am on a weeklong book tour in New York. Meanwhile the helicopters complain that their tweens don’t talk to them. While this hardly counts as hard evidence against the early 21st century parenting trends of the U.S., I take it as a sign that I am on the right track.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love