Parenting

No, Don't Be a Helicopter Parent. But Be Involved.

It's tempting to be a helicopter parent, but this isn't the healthiest approach.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

Aleutie/iStock
Source: Aleutie/iStock

The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works reads the title of a New York Times op-ed by Pamela Druckerman. She supports much of her piece with research presented in a recent book Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids by economic professors Matthias Doepke of Northwestern and Fabrizio Zilobotti of Yale. As a psychologist who specializes in happiness, parenting, and life balance, I have some serious issues with Druckerman's article. I think it is misleading and potentially a little dangerous.  

About "Parenting Styles"

Before addressing helicopter parenting, it's important to take a more general view of "parenting." Historically, being a parent was something you just were. If you had kids, you were a parent and if you didn't, well, you weren't. It was a noun, plain and simple. "Parenting," used as a verb or adjective, is relatively new to the English lexicon. Now, we think of parenting as how we relate to, discipline, and raise our kids.

"Parenting style" was popularized by developmental psychologist Dr. Diana Baumrind. She conceptualized the approach to parenting falling along continua of "responsiveness" and "demandingness." According to her original work, based upon whether parents were high/low along these continua, a parent could be categorized as having one of three parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian - These parents are high in demandingness but low in responsiveness. They tend to be harsh and lacked warmth. 
  • Permissive - These parents are low in demandingness but high in responsiveness. They might be viewed as "coddling" kids, spoiling them, and overindulging them. 
  • Authoritative - This is sometimes referred to as democratic parenting and is considered the "Goldilocks" approach. These parents tend to be both demanding and responsive. Thus, they are involved, give expectations, set limits and boundaries, and also provide warmth, acceptance, and encouragement.

Other researchers, most notably Maccoby and Martin, built upon Baumrind's original research and added other parenting styles, one of which includes "uninvolved" or "neglectful" parenting. As the name implies, this would describe parents who are both low in demands and in responsiveness. Think of the dad in Harry Chapin's song, "Cat's in the Cradle": "We'll get together then, son. You know we'll have a good time then." This dad simply did not carve out time to spend with his son. 

Baumrind and other parenting researchers and experts often point to "authoritative" parenting as the the recommended parenting style because it is associated with healthier outcomes. The combination of warmth and involvement in children's lives gives them the best of both worlds. Kids get the positive love, attention, and acceptance that they need, but they also get expectations and limit-setting. Importantly, the authoritative parenting is developmentally-sensitive so that parents back off some as children get older to allow them room to grow, form their own identities and interests, and "spread their wings." Note that these parenting styles fall along continua. While there might be four main quadrants of parenting styles based upon the intersecting axes of demandingness and responsiveness, parents can still vary quite a bit along these different dimensions. 

Where Does Helicopter Parenting Fit In?

Helicopter parenting typically describes hyper-involved, extremely concerned parents who pay close attention to a child's every move. They try to guide, coax, compel, or even force children to do what they think is "best" for him/her. They are highly demanding in terms of Baumrind's original model, but not very accepting. Their warmth is mostly conditional, such that children receive love and positive attention primarily when they are meeting the parents' high expectations. 

Helicopter parents are often acutely concerned with their child's grades and academic trajectory. Think of the parent who is constantly checking a child's grades, demanding that he/she get all As, requiring him/her to take the most advanced courses, tracking class rank, comparing their child to others, focusing on their child's accomplishments, etc. These parents often justify these behaviors because they want their child to be "successful" in life. One might view Amy Chua's parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, as a case study in helicopter parenting. (Side note: Amy Chua's husband, Jed, as described in the book, is not a "tiger" parent. Perhaps his greater acceptance and warmth offset some of Ms. Chua's "tiger" parenting).    

The Problem with Parenting Styles

One of the major problems with the concept of parenting styles, along with about every concept in the social sciences, is that they are hypothetical constructs. That is, they don't really exist in an objective, quantifiable way. Parenting doesn't fit neatly into clearly delineated categories. At different times, situations, with different children, and ages of the children, the same parent is likely to adjust his/her demandingness/responsiveness. Moreover, if multiple caregivers are involved, different parenting styles are likely to come into play. 

In her Times piece, Druckerman doesn't distinguish "helicopter" from "authoritative" parenting. She touts the many benefits that go along with authoritative parenting as if those are the same for helicopter parenting. While there are certainly problems with defining these constructs, they are not typically depicted as one in the same. 

How Can We Determine the "Best" Parenting Style?

Another problem with Druckerman's piece is that we need to agree on the outcome measures involved. The headline claims that helicopter parenting "works." What does this even mean? For instance, if an expert is endorsing a particular parenting style as "working the best," what's that based upon? What are we measuring; High school grade point average? SAT scores? Which college he/she goes to? Happiness? Longevity? Income at 35 years old? A happy marriage? It's possible that helicopter parenting produces outcomes both positive (e.g., high school class rank) and negative (e.g., higher incidence of mental health problems). 

What Does the Research Say About Parenting Styles?

There are countless parenting books and research articles in which positive child outcomes are associated with an authoritative parenting style. When it comes to making sweeping recommendations about what parenting style to adopt, it is critical to look at the preponderance of the data. Some parenting books that endorse authoritative parenting style approaches (if not in name) include How to Raise an Adult and The Whole Brain Child. Moreover, there are a number of articles supporting negative outcomes associated with helicopter parenting. Interestingly, Druckerman also touts the benefits of authoritative parenting, but that's not the headline. Her headline suggests that helicopter parenting is the key to success. Again, most child and developmental psychologists would not use these two terms interchangeably. 

Why Authoritative Parenting Instead of Helicopter Parenting?

There is a large body of research supporting Richard Ryan and Edward Deci's Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as a way of understanding human behavior, motivation, and flourishing. Basically, once our physiological needs are met (e.g., air, food, water, sleep), then our intrinsic psychological needs motivate our behavior. These are for relatedness (i.e., social connection), competence (i.e., sense of mastery), and autonomy (i.e., our sense of agency). To the extent that we are meeting these needs, we tend to be fairly happy and well-adjusted. 

Using this framework, as well as the large body of research supporting SDT, helicopter parenting is problematic. Hyper-involved, controlling parents infringe upon children's developmental, psychological need for autonomy and, to some extent, competence. Hovering, pushy parents send the message to kids, "I don't trust that you can make good decisions without me." There is an implicit fear-base in helicopter parenting. Also, even when kids achieve noteworthy accomplishments, they don't necessarily enjoy full credit because their parents did much of the work. 

A Case "For" Helicopter Parenting?

Let's take a slightly different angle on the idea of helicopter parenting. There is no question that it has become increasingly competitive for kids to get into "good" colleges. In particular, high school kids must take many advanced courses, score well on standardized tests, have strong personal statements, be involved in extra-curricular activities, and so on. In a very real way, to get into the same colleges, parents need to be more involved in their kids' academics than parents of 20-30 years ago.

The cost of a college education has skyrocketed. High school students and their parents, who often are footing most of the expense, need to carefully navigate the many challenges of getting into college because so much time and money is at stake. Hiring college prep advisers, counselors, and tutors has almost become a necessity. Parents know that if they decide to back off from such involvement, their child might fall behind others who are getting such assistance from their parents. Oftentimes students want and need such parental involvement just to keep up with their peers. In a way, what might be considered helicopter parenting 20 years ago looks more like authoritative parenting today. 

The Takeaway

Parenting is a balancing act. There is not a playbook that can tell us exactly what to do on every step of the parenting journey. We want our kids to grow up to be successful and happy. Authoritative parenting is the most effective approach for helping our children achieve these broad life goals. It is characterized by being involved in our kids' lives through providing love, warmth, acceptance, guidance, boundaries, and limit-setting. We need to be developmentally sensitive so that we gradually back off as they grow older. This allows them to practice using freedom in responsible ways and to meet their intrinsic need for autonomy. We want to avoid doing things for them that they can (or should) do themselves.

While we want to help them succeed, we have to be careful not to live vicariously through them. We need to send a consistent message that our love for and acceptance of them are not contingent upon them achieving certain goals — especially if they are the goals that we have for them. We don't want to micromanage their lives, but in certain aspects of their lives, we might need to be more involved than in past generations. Finally, we should just aim for "good enough" parenting. A lot of this comes out in the wash, and we can make ourselves crazy trying to be the "best" parents.