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What is Up with Helicopter Parents?

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Helicopter parent is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days, rarely as a compliment.  It refers to the idea that modern parents hover over their children, vigilantly paying attention and ready to swoop in to take control at the first sign of trouble.  I see them all the time, not just in my research on families but in my own life as a parent who likes to see himself as not helicopter parenting, but, really, does any helicopter parent think they are helicoptering?  The point is that many American parents have become—or are thought to have become—overly involved in managing their children’s lives.

 

As a sociologist who studies child development with a focus on parenting, I unpack, contextualize, and complicate widely discussed ideas like helicopter parenting in Families Now.  In fact, I would argue that using parenting—and all the messy interactions and conflicted feelings it entails—as a window into the state of the family and the country is precisely what makes Families Now unique and necessary.  I think that helicopter parenting—any kind of parenting, really—is so much more than what goes on between parent and child.  For example, sections of Chapters 11, 12, and 13 of Families Now delve into the modern phenomenon of overly involved parents to connect such a personal experience to three macro-level forces: 

  • The growing economic uncertainty of life in a globalized world, which motivates anxious parents to increasingly attempt to exert control over the children’s lives to ensure (in their minds) that they will be OK.
  • The widening socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequality that results in helicopter-type parenting working very well for families who already have power and status—helping their already advantaged children gain more advantages in schools and elsewhere—while being far harder to achieve and less likely to have the same impact for other families. 
  • The convergence of the cultural evolution in the perceived starting point of adulthood and the insecurity of the modern labor market that increases the length of time that young people are dependent on their parents, which means that helicopter parenting is happening far past childhood and well into the 20s and 30s (and maybe even beyond!).

 

To continue this discussion, pose two scenarios to your students: 1) a sports team suspends a high-performing 13-year old for speaking disrespectfully to officials, and 2) a 22-year old does well on tests in a college math course but is given a low grade because of poor attendance.  Now, break the students into smaller discussion groups and pose the following questions:

  • What are concrete examples of parental reactions to these situations that you would characterize as helicopter parenting?
  • Can you articulate where the “line” is between helicopter and non-helicopter reactions?
  • Does changing the identity of the young person in question from male to female, black to white, or low-income to high-income change how you think that parents would react or how “successful” their reactions would be in terms of serving their children’s interests?

Bring the class together to determine where the consensus and disagreements arise, also providing opportunities for willing students to reflect on where their own parents fall in the spectrum of helicopter (or non-helicopter) parenting.

About the Author
Robert Crosnoe is Rapoport Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the chair of the Department of Sociology and also holds faculty appointments in the Population Research Center and (by courtesy) Department of Psychology. Prior to coming to Texas, he received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University and completed post-doctoral fellowships at the Center for Developmental Science and Carolina Population Center, both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Crosnoe’s research primarily focuses on family, education, and health with special attention to the experiences of children, adolescents, and young adults from socioeconomically disadvantaged and immigrant populations. This research has been funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Institute of Education Sciences, National Institute of Justice, William T. Grant Foundation, and Foundation for Child Development. It has been published in inter-disciplinary journals, such as American Educational Research Journal, American Journal of Public Health, American Sociological Review, Child Development, Demography, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Marriage and Family, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His books include Mexican Roots, American Schools: Helping Mexican Immigrant Children Succeed (Stanford University Press), Fitting In, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education (Cambridge University Press), Asset or Distraction: Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital from Adolescence and Young Adulthood (Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development with Rachel Gordon), Healthy Learners: A Whole Child Approach to Disparities in Early Education (Teachers College Press with Claude Bonazzo and Nina Wu), and Debating Early Child Care: The Relationship between Developmental Science and the MediaUniversity Press with Tama Leventhal). In the past, Dr. Crosnoe has been a Co-PI of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, chaired the Children and Youth Section of the American Sociological Association, served on the Governing Council of the Society for Research in Child Development, and completed a term as Deputy Editor of Journal of Marriage and Family. Currently, he is President-Elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Collaborative on Development in Context, and serves on the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. He has been elected to the Sociological Research Association, received awards from the Society for Research in Child Development, three sections of the American Sociological Association, and the Society for Research on Human Development. He has also been awarded the Scholar Award from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Changing Faces of America’s Children fellowship from the Foundation for Child Development and completed a fellowship year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.