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Helicopter Parenting is Good Parenting

The gift of failure

In her 1981 monograph, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller describes three parenting archetypes—the good mother, the bad mother and the good-enough mother. The good mother is hypervigilant, overprotective and self-imposing. The bad mother is neglectful and emotionally unavailable. The good-enough mother balances watchful attention and encourages self-exploration. Miller’s good mother foreshadowed what today we refer to as a helicopter parent, who displays an invasive hypervigilance that is ultimately debilitating for both the child and the parent.

The Stranger Danger Ethic

In her book, How to Raise an Adult, educator Juliette Lythcott-Haims suggests a series of child abductions and murders that occurred in late 1970s fostered the Stranger Danger ethic. This new social imperative moved parents and caregivers away from a culture of caution—one that echoed Miller’s good-enough parent—toward a culture predominated by fear. That fear was, in part, the genesis of the helicopter parent and amplified several cultural influences that both foster and feed the current dynamic of over-parenting.

The Self-Esteem Movement

The self-esteem movement—where every child is a star just because someone tells them it’s so—is one such cultural influence. In the past, you were a star because you displayed athletic or academic prowess (or both) or were somehow an asset or influence in the community. The self-esteem movement came out of the well-intentioned efforts of parents, largely in response to a notion forwarded by Nathaniel Branden, who posited that self-esteem was something that could be conferred. Enter the idea of rewarding presence in lieu of prowess, and suddenly everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.

In fact, self-esteem cannot be conferred. It develops through risk taking and skills development. The hypervigilance associated with helicopter parenting, or Miller’s good mother (read: good parent), interferes with this natural socialization process. Children are not allowed to fail, and that’s a problem, because it literally doesn’t prepare them for the real world. It is, in fact, the underlying dynamic that prompts so many millennials to ultimately fail—at school, in the workforce and at life in general—and so many mental health professionals to be confronted with a young adult population fraught with anxiety and self-doubt.

The Gift of Failure

The self-esteem that leads to a sense of personal value and self-worth is built on failure, not perceived success. There is a Hindu wisdom teaching suggest that you can’t fall in a muddy field and expect to stand up on the floor of the Taj Mahal. Rather, if you fall in a muddy field, you must get up and continue your journey to the palace. That palace is a place of wisdom, built on the experience of having fallen, gotten up and continued.

Without some semblance of that sensibility, there is no filter for the experience of real-world failure when the buffer of the good parent is no longer in place. Instead there is a sort of learned helplessness that issues from the hyper-protectionist helicopter parent experience and manifests in the inability to both understand and accept failure. Allowing kids to fail and learn from their mistakes helps them develop the skills they need to succeed, rather than teaching them they are a success just for showing up.

© 2018 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved