What’s wrong with helicopter parenting

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helicopter parentThis weekend I met an older woman who, as a child in West Virginia, was deposited on a train once a summer to visit an uncle who lived in Cincinnati. Her parents would pin a note on her chest, in the manner of Paddington Bear, and dispatch her a couple hundred miles alone when she was as young as eight or nine.

She had wonderful times.

That 1950s-era practice may be an extreme case of childhood independence, but even my generation enjoyed great freedom. When I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, I exited my door each morning to walk or bike wherever I was heading for the day. During the summer, that meant hanging around with the other kids in my neighborhood for hours at a stretch, only returning home for meals or when one of us had an injury. Sometimes our parents had little idea where we were—the library, the college swimming pool, a friend’s house. Our lives were our own.

I’m not sure when the world changed, but last month those changes reached a nadir of ridiculousness when the police began investigating a suburban Maryland family that had dared to permit their children to walk home from the park together without an adult.

When did we, as a culture, become so terrified of allowing children any independence at all?

The police who arrived at that family’s doorstep lectured the parents about it being a dangerous world—more dangerous, they felt, than the one they and I grew up in.

While I’m sure they see some terrible situations in their jobs, the fact is that they’re wrong, statistically. In terms of abductions and murders, children are safer now than they have ever been.

In fact, some of the ways they are not safe can be attributed in part to helicopter parenting, like the rising rates of children who die each year in car accidents — perhaps because we insist on ferrying them around like rajahs. That’s to say nothing of children who succumb to the growing epidemic of juvenile obesity because we’d rather have them “safe” at home than outside playing a twilight game of tag.

And meanwhile, both children and their parents are obsessed as never before with fantasy fiction. We devour stories about young teenagers who save the world from evil empires like Panem or splintered societies as in Divergent. In these tales, sixteen-year-olds face life-and-death battles in which everything hinges upon their proven ability to act like adults.

(Actually, scratch that; most of the adults in these novels are perfectly useless. The young characters are expected to be superheroes.)

Fantasy fiction with juvenile heroes began taking off in the late 1990s, not long after our profound cultural shift in childhood independence. In 1971, 80% of third-grade children in the U.K. walked to school; by the 1990s it was down to 9% (and would likely be even lower today).

While we encourage our children to read about eleven-year-old wizards who navigate whole new worlds almost entirely on their own, we don’t allow them to so much as cross the street without our standing by to wipe their noses.

Some people tend to dismiss fantasy fiction as mere escapism, but it’s hazardous to ignore the deeper reasons children are attracted to it. Fantasy serves a compensatory function in our lives. It provides a safe space in which we can be the hero, save the prince/ss, and slay the dragon.

And it takes on special resonance when parents so tightly control their children’s freedom that fantasy fiction becomes the lone venue in which they, not their parents, are required to take charge of their lives.

  • I wonder if helicopter parenting also contributes to the kids ability to interact with other adults in safe ways. If the parent is always around to say “no” or usher them away, even when there is no case to be worried (which is obviously most cases), I feel that the observations the kids make will be damaging to their future interactions.

  • That’s an interesting point. Some parents’ well-intentioned determination to never allow a child to be in a conversation with an adult who is a stranger isn’t really preparing them for an adulthood in which every single day they will be interacting with adults who are strangers.

  • A Happy Hubby

    Very interesting. I have noticed I parent different than my parents did.

    One (maybe small) point that I have always made is I try and get my kids to interact with adults. If they find their hamburger does not have pickles, then I tell them they need to go up to the counter and ask to have it corrected. It seems to be working as they don’t even mention to us if there are no pickles – they just get up and go get it fixed. I do like how the boy scouts (if done a bit by the book) the parents are only slightly involved (other than a boot in the backside of the boy). The scout is supposed to talk to the merit badge counselor – not the parent. The scout is supposed to talk with the scoutmaster when they are ready to advance in rank.

  • Maddy

    I wonder what Elizabeth Smart would have to say on this topic?

    I think parents can be extreme on either side of the spectrum. There is no way an adult, let alone a child, can determine who constitutes a safety threat. Those who seek to do harm are experts. My sister and I were molested in suburban SLC, in a public place, in the presence of my unaware mother. It happens. Sometimes it is the “favorite” coach, “favorite” clergy member, “favorite” neighbor one needs to fear. (Btw do you ever check to see who in your area is required to register as a sex offender?)

    Children get lots of practice interacting with adults when they start attending school. They don’t need “practice” interacting with strangers to become functional, well-adjusted adults.

  • Sharee

    When I was a child (40s/50s) we always walked to school, played at or friends’ homes, went swimming or hunting for pollywogs and minnows in the “old swimming hole” in the creek down the back alley, walked to the beach in the summer, went hiking, walked to the movie theater, walked to piano lessons, all without adults anywhere around. And except for the creek, which was only about a block away, and school, which was just a few blocks, most of the places we went were maybe two or three miles distant (I lived in a small town). On Halloween, we took pillowcases and canvased practically the entire town to get enough candy to last until the next Halloween–and our parents did not go with us. We certainly felt no danger, and neither did our parents. And we never really did things to get into trouble, either. We were trusted to behave wherever we were and we did no betray that trust.

  • That was my experience, too. And I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. It really does seem to have been a pretty recent thing.

  • Jack

    Wow…..an article that is mature, sensible and informative. Perhaps it will start a trend here.

    Part of the problem is that due to the ubiquitous Internet, we hear more bad stories about children meeting terrible fates, even though that’s less common today than in prior decades. As the writer points out, our society is far safer today than previously.

    Mothers tend to be more risk-averse than fathers, so maybe this is a wakeup call to fathers to spend less time trying to make money and more time raising kids and assessing risk more realistically. A cynic might reply that fathers fear the prospect of divorce court and its predictable consequences regarding custody and so they cede control on these issues.

  • A Happy Hubby

    I used a quote that is applicable that was wonderful and I seemed to have lost it.

    It was basically a very well worded few sentences that said something to the effect of:
    In my grandmother’s world she was able to have empathy and the capacity to handle the pain around her and even do something about it. My mother had more awareness due to modern communications and that changed. With me it is a different world as I can hear of so much more evil and pain that I have a much harder time dealing with. On top of that I am unable to do as much about it.

    Which I thought was a really insightful comment. Then I read that this was said by a women in like the 1940’s! Dang I need to find that quote!

  • Nobody is forcing you to read, Jack.

  • Wayne Dequer


    Thank you for your comments about the problems with helicopter parenting and the decrease in most reasonable measures of crime. I taught middle school/junior high from 1970 through 2009, and have watched the dramatic change in how kids got to school and the rising paranoia on the part of many parents about child safety. Over-protective parents do their children disservices in several important areas. Childhood is a time to prepare for the challenges of adulthood, and this life is a time to learn to make wise choices often through trial and error (see https://www.lds.org/youth/for-the-strength-of-youth/agency-and-accountability?lang=eng ).

    However, there are several different accounts of the incident with the children in the suburban Maryland family. You seem to have chosen one of the more extreme accounts. The kids, 6 and 10, were walking a mile home from a park. Once the police were called they had a duty to investigate and protect. The kids were without I.D. and when taken home, the father refused to show I.D. which was probably wise for the police to ask for before leaving the children. There was somewhat understandable over-reaction form both sides.

    There is always a balance to be struck between independence and protection in our society and especially by parents of non-adult children. Finding a healthy balance takes wisdom. This is also an important issue for LDS parents. I find guidance in scriptures and especially 2 Nephi 2, D&C 93: 40 and D&C 121:34-46, and “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”, all of which can be found at lds.org. We should also seek guidance from the Holy Ghost and remember 2 Timothy 7:1 which reads: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

  • Fred M

    Nice post, Jana! My 23-year-old daughter and her friends seem to be having a much harder time coping with life on their own than my generation did. We may have done them a disservice by being over-protective and over-involved in their lives. Only time will tell…

  • Annie

    My kids are 13, 11, 8, and 4. I’ve been very hands-off with my first 3 (they walk to & from school, play outside ALL day during the summer, go to friend’s houses, etc.). My 4 year old has had T1 diabetes since she was 2, which requires me to be with her every second of every day. I don’t even leave her with babysitters. it has been interesting to watch her develop socially and emotionally in comparison to my other kids when they were her age. HUGE difference. Personality plays a small part in her case but I would definitely say that she is delayed at this point and I have no doubt that it’s because I’m constantly by her side (you know, keeping her alive and stuff). I guess you could say that I’m forced to be a helicopter parent, but it’s clearly taking its toll.

  • Larry

    Its not that children were safer back then. It was just people didn’t talk about nasty things happening to them so openly or on such a regular basis. There were still the same molesters and miscreants lurking around but such incidents were discussed in hushed tones and not aired in public.

    A great fictional example is Stephen King’s “It”. The novel uses the notion of parental silence for creepy effect as adults ignore or avoid discussion the periodic murder of a town’s children in the 50’s.

    There is a certain level of elitism in “helicopter parenting”. Having the time and financial stability to be around children for most of the day is a luxury many parents do not have. Least of all those from the majority of families who need dual incomes to maintain a semblance of middle class life. Despite the talk of helicopter parenting, “latch-key children” are still more or less the norm for the majority of people.

  • Larry

    Ad hominem Jack strikes again. Lacking anything to say on the subject he goes right into a backhanded comment about the author.

  • Nice article. As a parent educator, I encourage parents to allow children to be and feel capable and develop healthy risk taking and I do notice that many parents are uncomfortable with this concept. I wonder if it’s a reaction from the parent not feeling emotionally supported as a child and they don’t want their child to feel the same. So I try to stress that we CAN be emotionally supportive while at the same time not rescue or overprotect our kids.
    I am so proud of my own children and how capable they are. They are 18 and 21. It was hard not to rescue them sometimes and I think every parent struggles to find a happy medium between not rescuing versus emotionally abandoning a child or not being supportive. Our kids need to struggle in order to develop persistence and to learn that mistakes are simply part of live and part of the learning process. It’s certainly has been hard to watch my kids make some of the mistakes they’ve made. I know I’ve lost sleep over it at times.

  • Oops. Saw a typo. “live” should be “life”

  • Jack

    Wrong Larry….I wasn’t commenting on the author. “Here” means the site.

  • Jack

    See response to Larry….I was commenting on the site, not the author. I was commending the author for a substantive piece. Would that other writers on the site would write in a similar way.

  • Valerie


  • Jeff P

    I think your suggestion is excellent, Kelly. Some relevant advice on parenting I got over the years is:
    1) Your job is not to prevent all unpleasant things from happening to your kids, but to prepare them to handle them themselves.
    2) Telling your kids to fear strangers is more likely to make them introverted and fearful – let them engage with strangers, but with set rules.

  • Jeff P

    Very good, and important observations Jana.

    Our perception of risk does not match reality. Violent crime, as measured by the FBI, has dropped in half in the last thirty years. Yet, we feel less safe than ever.
    Kidnapping of unknown, random children is very rare – according to an article I see, less than a few hundred cases a year. Yet, we think nothing of the most dangerous activity most of us engage in: driving. Traffic accidents kill almost 100 people every day, yet we worry more about much more distant risks like kidnapping, home assault, and shark attack.

    It seems ironic: the safer we get, the more unsafe we feel. The safer we are, the more obsessed with safety we become.

  • Stark

    I walked with my younger sister to school at 11 but I do think parents have gone extreme when it comes to free range parenting. Such as the parents who let their 10 and 6 year old walk a long distance from school and didn’t even realize they were 4 hours late, but that’s not even my biggest problem, my biggest problem is the fact that these parents went on tv and told the whole world that they let their kids wander alone and at times stay home alone. Why? Since when do issues like this have to always become public, leave out the media. Issues with school, leave out the media, deal with it yourself. Go to Florida Wal-Mart, you’ll see a wall full of pictures of missing children and wonder why there are helicopter parents.Walking your child to school or the park doesn’t hint helicopter. Now breastfeeding your child at 7 is a different story, cutting up your big kids food, sitting in class with them different story. Stranger danger is still in and should always be.