Helicopter parenting– where does it come from– and how can we avoid it?

helicopter drawingBy Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.

Where does helicopter parenting come from?  Isn’t it just a super-extraordinary form of love?

I became very curious about this 10 years ago when I first observed toddlers and young children demonstrating much more capability, courtesy, and self-reliance than other children their age.  These children were also so much happier and busier learning than other children their age.  I saw very few tantrums and, in their place, I saw young children demonstrating great grace and courtesy.  It was amazing!  

When we studied the differences between this environment and other early childhood environments, we came to several surprising insights about modern approaches to young children. 

First of all, it’s true– hyper-supervision comes from having a deep and abiding love for one’s child and wanting only the best for them.  And that’s a good thing! 

But overly restrictive, hovering, helicopter parenting often starts in the first 3 years and can be quite detrimental to child development and parent-child relationships.  So what causes it?  

Beware of these three causes of helicopter parenting.

  1. Unreasonable fear that babies and young children are in constant danger — this leads parents to hover and restrict children’s exploration and development. New parents seeking information about raising young children can now find thousands of articles telling them about some child who lost an eye or was kidnapped or died in a freak accident.  I know how much vulnerability and fear this information causes a new parent!  And it’s a fear that’s blown out of proportion.  Because of the way we get our news now, something that happened to 1 child out of a 1,000,000 becomes something that every parent fears.  And, let’s be honest, there is always someone selling something you can buy to keep your child safe from that (extremely unlikely) danger.  
  1. Adults massively underestimate the capabilities of young children, feeling they must do everything for them. This goes on until the parent/ caregiver and child are quite out of sync and the children are screaming at them several times per day I want to do it myself!  Babies are born with amazing intelligence and strong, inherent drives to learn and explore.  And toddlers are exceedingly willing to work very hard at developing the self-reliance skills and capabilities of more mature humans.   

But parents and caregivers are guided by “experts” to keep young children clean and safe—these are the priorities.  And that sounds right.  But this emphasis is often carried to an extreme, while few ever teach parents about the young child’s natural learning drives.  Few parents learn about how much critical development occurs quite naturally in the first few years – but only if young children are allowed to explore and interact with their environment.  

  1. Finally, parents’ lives are so busy now, with longer working hours than ever.  It can be difficult for parents to give small children the time they need to do things for themselves.  When parents are always in a rush, it’s much easier to do everything for the young child—put on their clothes rather than let them work at it, feed them rather than let them feed themselves, and change their diapers rather than introduce them to the potty and clean 20 or 30 cloth pants every week.

So, helicopter parenting starting in the early years, and it’s driven by undue fears, profound underestimation of the young child’s capabilities, and extreme time demands — all of which combine to influence parents and caregivers to continue doing things for their children long after the children could do things for themselves. 

The result is that young children aren’t developing the capabilities or the self-confidence that come from following their innate learning drives. Could this be one of the reasons so many children seem so immature?  It’s just one example, but did you know that children in the US today are achieving independent toileting 1 – 2 years later than they were 60 years ago?!

So, what I recommend to my coaching clients and readers is three-fold:

  1. Doubt the fear-promoting information. Any time you find a source of information – written, video, or in person– that emphasizes danger! – hold out doubt. Are they trying to sell you something?  Do you really think your child is that fragile?  Would it be better just to turn off the TV, unlike their page, unsubscribe to the publications that promote such fear?   You don’t need those images (of something horrible that happened to one child one time) in your head!  Maybe you can be the parent in your group who helps everyone experience less fear associated with their child– that would be a gift!
  1. Become aware of the intelligence and capability in the young child. Notice their curiosity, their strength and resilience. Observe without judgment and notice that the child will drive his own learning in a direction that is very productive—if only others will let him. As one wise mom told me:

At the beginning, I was so worried about something happening to her. But she kept showing me that babies are strong.  She never got sick.  She came to us with her own personality and a strong will.  Sometimes my husband and I would just be exhausted and ready to fall apart from taking care of a new baby and feel like we couldn’t make it through another day– but, we would go get her out of bed in the morning and she would just be smiling and ready for the day!  I just kept thinking “gosh, she’s so strong!”

  1. Take more time to let your child do things for herself. If you’re like most parents of young children these days, your life is very busy and you try to do everything fast.  But that can lead to undermining your child’s development—because your child needs time to develop the skills to do things.  When I first saw a toddler clean the table in preparation for a meal, it took the child more than 20 minutes!  I realized that there are a lot of steps involved in this process—and there is a sequence to the work, and it takes a lot of coordination.  When we can allow the child time to do this, and let them participate in the community this way, it will bring out the best in them!    

What have you learned that helps you to treat the young child with high regard and allow him to do things for himself?

I am offering a course on the Secrets to Living Stress-Free with a Toddler 4 Mondays 12:30 – 1:30 August 31st, Sept. 14, 21, 28 in Southwest Denver.  Seats are limited, so let your friends know today! 


gt headshot pretty smile 2013

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2 Responses to Helicopter parenting– where does it come from– and how can we avoid it?

  1. Etsuko says:

    Both # 3 spoke to me the most and I really have to remember about giving my daughter enough time to do things by herself.
    We recently went to a birthday party and there, she was the youngest one. I was little worried that she may not be able to interact well with other older children as she gets shy at first in public also. It was also a princess tea party and the “princess’ was sharing about the table manner and asking the children to copy her. I almost stepped in and helped her but then I was reminded that I should give her some space and let her learn and experience. They were also making bead bracelets and I thought she would have difficult time making one by herself. But with very minimal help from me, she started to make one on her own and was very patient putting the thread into such small beads.. I was very impressed! and she really had a good time interacting with her new friends and even communicated with the princess very well.. answering her questions and stuff! I was so proud of her!!! 🙂

    • admin says:

      Etsuko– thanks for sharing this! It’s not easy to hold back, but they get so much more out of it when they do it themselves. I have a big smile on my face, just picturing you both at that party! Misaki is growing into such a capable, confident individual!

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