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Helicopter Parenting – What is it and Where Does it Come From?

Helicopter parenting is a relatively new term in our cultural lexicon. It refers to today’s cultural tendency to parent with a keen eye towards protecting our children from any and all potential sources of harm, risk and/or disappointment. In many ways, helicopter parenting is synonymous with the notion of “over-parenting” and/or “hyper-parenting.”

The Origins of the Term “Helicopter Parenting”
The term was first used in the 1990 book called “Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility” in a section on “ineffective parenting styles.” From there, the term was picked up in educational circles to refer to the intensive intervention of some parents in the day-to-day aspects of their children’s educational lives — their classroom activities, their courses and grades, their communications with teachers and professors, etc.

In this way, when the term helicopter parenting is used pejoratively, it is meant to suggest that parents today are hovering too much — that there is such a thing as too much protection, too much parental control, too much supervision, involvement and intervention. Indeed, the end result of a parenting parenting approach which aims to eliminate as much risk, disappointment, and physical/emotional injury as possible is to constantly hover, helicopter-like, over the minute goings-on of children’s daily lives.

The argument against helicopter parenting, then, is that some degree of disappointment, physical/emotional injury and risk, and some degree of “handling things yourself” is needed in order for children to become responsible, resilient, capable, self-sufficient and self-coping members of society.

Where does Helicopter Parenting Come From?
The desire to minimize, eliminate and manage risk is not unique to the domain of parenting. Indeed, “risk consciousness” is itself a central feature of modern life. The quest to understand, calculate, communicate, manage, and otherwise minimize or eliminate the myriad risks associated with our everyday lives has become one of the defining characteristics of modern post-industrial societies.

In this context, the tendency toward helicopter parenting is not simply an isolated issue of overzealous parenting — a case of “ineffective parenting” or “over-parenting” that is somehow at odds broader cultural behaviors and tendencies. Rather, our wider contemporary obsession with risk and risk management actually expects and demands that we parent with a keen eye towards the various things that could possibly cause any form of physical or emotional harm, injury, discomfort, pain, or disappointment.

Modern parenting culture expects parents to have the moral and social responsibility to be extraordinarily “risk conscious” vis-a-vis their parenting philosophy and behaviors. The scholar Ellie Lee, for example, argues that in today’s risk society, “cultural norms…construct the ‘good/responsible mother’ as the mother who is alert to the manifold risks posed to her child(ren) by contemporary society, and considers it her job to manage these risks through reference to expert opinion.”

In other words, the tendency towards helicopter parenting is — rightly or wrongly — a completely logical outcome of an already risk-obsessed, expert-guided culture.

In Defense of Parents
Understanding where helicopter parenting comes from is not to say that it is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing to do. It is, however, to say that the tendency to want to protect our kids from any and all potential sources of risk (often accomplished by hovering, intervening and “helicoptering” over our children) is little more than an extension of broader cultural tendencies that define modern risk-society.

That said, parents are often caught in a catch-22. On one hand, helicopter parenting is construed as “over-parenting” and is judged in a negative light. However, if and when we curtail our level of control and involvement and allow our children to be exposed to more risks in their day-to-day lives (i.e. if we consciously challenge the philosophical underpinnings of helicopter parenting), we still face the possibility of being judged negatively, especially if that longer leash results in some form of physical or emotional injury to our child.

The implicit cultural expectation is that parents be neither too risk-adverse nor too risk-accepting, but to get the balance “just right;” basically, to figure out how to walk a tightrope.

I have some serious concerns with this implicit expectation of modern parents, particularly if it is mainly professionals and “experts” (as opposed to parents themselves) who are given the primary authority to define and judge what “just right” parenting is, what the optimal blend of risk exposure and risk aversion might be for any one child. A behaviour that might be considered “too risky” according to one family might be completely within the acceptable realm of risk according to another. This, I believe, is a good thing and not something that should be curtailed. We should have variation in our parenting styles and in our assessments of risk. This keeps us thinking, it keep us on our toes, and it keeps us debating and talking about one of the most significant jobs in the world, the raising of the next generation.

Suggestions for Further Reading
Helicopter parenting is an important phenomenon to debate, as it speaks to some of the key tensions of modern parenting culture. As such, I have a couple of suggestions for “further reading.” One is an interesting and balanced article recently published in Time magazine called “The Case Against Over-Parenting”.

Another suggestion is an excellent book on modern parenting culture and the issues of risk called “Paranoid Parenting” by Frank Furedi, PhD.

Also, go to the Motherhood Cafe’s Helicopter Parenting Forum to read and share more views about helicopter parenting.

Stephanie Knaak, PhD, is the creator of the Motherhood Cafe. Her PhD is in the field of Sociology, specializing in parenting culture. She has published numerous academic articles, has appeared on TV, and has spoken on both national and international platforms as an expert on various motherhood issues, including postpartum adjustment, postpartum depression, and infant feeding.

Author: Stephanie Knaak, Ph.D.
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