Guiding Your Children to Make Their Own Decisions

The reasons why helicopter parenting hurts children.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

When I found out that my wife was pregnant with my first son, I asked my father-in-law for advice. He told me not to be afraid to let them make mistakes. “Mistakes,” he told me, “are how we grow.” At the time, I remember thinking that this was an important piece of advice, but also that it would take having a colder heart about my children’s decisions than I might be able to have.

According to a recent article (2019), indulgent parenting is the type that thinks it is “the ultimate parental affection and devotion,” but which actually coddles the emerging adult and robs them of the lessons that they need to learn to do well in the real world. The indulgent parent centers his whole life around his children and wants to offer them the world by trying to remove as many obstacles to happiness as he can.

There are three main forms of indulgent parenting: 1) material indulgence, which gives children all of the goods and financial comfort that they want; 2) behavioral indulgence, which gives children all the leeway and excuses that they can, with few expectations for acting responsibly; and 3) relational indulgence, which is an overly protective method of involvement. Relational indulgence is often characterized by parents who do things for their children that are developmentally inappropriate.

If your childhood was impoverished, and you are lucky enough to give your children a better life, there’s no harm in that. However, somewhere along the line, your children are going to need to work for some of what they want, just to teach them that the good things in life need to be achieved, rather than given to them. If you grew up with parents who were authoritarian and punitive, you might want your children to have an easier time of it. Again, no harm in that. However, somewhere along the line, your children need to experience consequences for their actions and be expected to act responsibly, so that they learn how to bend behavior to contexts and feel in control of their own outcomes.

If your opinion about your upbringing is that you made a lot of mistakes that you don’t want your children to make, you may be inclined to try to protect them from making those same mistakes. If you do that with conversation and honesty and try to talk them through their decisions so that they can make better ones, you’re on the right path to showing them how to think about life in a proactive way. If, however, your method of protecting them is to handle life for them, to hover over them and keep them from danger, you may be a helicopter parent. If your overinvolvement is combined with high demandingness, you are running the risk of taking away their capacity to cope with adult life.

According to the study by Cui et al. (2019), indulgent parenting in childhood often transforms into helicopter parenting in adolescence and adulthood. This kind of parenting often has its roots in parental anxiety about the parent’s own past and the child’s possible future. That kind of anxiety can wear off on the child. Children of indulgent parents do not benefit from the affection and devotion that the parent wants to lavish on them. Instead, they are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and low levels of well-being. They are also likely to have lower levels of emotional regulation and coping skills and higher levels of risky behaviors and feelings of entitlement.

Not only that, but the parents who hover over their children are likely to become anxious about whether their children will follow their advice, do as they say and not as they’ve done. Overinvolved parenting seems like what loving parents ought to do. But it is hard work and leads to the parents themselves developing distress, anxiety, depression, and feeling lower life satisfaction.

It seems to me that overindulgent and helicopter parenting stems from a projection of weakness and shame on the part of a parent onto their child. What mistakes have you made in your life? Are you afraid your child will make the same mistakes? Talk to them honestly about those mistakes, rather than trying to shield them from situations where those mistakes could be made or accusing them of being too weak to resist temptation.

Ask yourself, “What could I have received in my life when I was younger that might have helped me avoid the mistakes I am so desperate to shield my child from?” Instead of trying to put a force field around them to keep them from having to experience mistakes, provide for your child those protective factors—like love, kindness, respect, and honesty—that can help them face their mistakes with strength and resilience.

Final thought: Thinking back to the mistakes of your past, would your parents getting “up in your business” have worked to keep you from making those mistakes? Perhaps they could have given you more time, but the time you might have benefited from would not be time intruding on your life. Instead, you could have used time communicating and understanding and opening up.

How about this? Those mistakes you’ve made—didn’t they shape you into the person you are today? Won’t your child be shaped by their own mistakes? The temptation is to keep our children from making mistakes, but we can never accomplish that. Mistakes will be made.

The real lesson here is to shore up our relationship with our children so that when they are faced with their own challenges, they will be willing to disclose their dilemmas to us (which won’t happen if they expect to be judged). This is what parenting strives for—to be there for our children so that we can give them input to use when they face hard decisions, and they can turn their mistakes into vitamins for their character, which will make them stronger for the future.

References

Cui, M., Darling, C. A., Coccia, C., Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2019). Indulgent parenting, helicopter parenting, and well-being of parents and emerging adults. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28(3), 860-871.