Helicopter Parenting Times Three Generations
Posted in ChicagoNow, April 24, 2014 (cartoon by Marcia Liss)
My 90-year-old mother likes to tell me I’m her mother now. What I think she means is, since my father died, she relies on my brothers and me to manage her finances and help her make important decisions. Being the only sibling living out of town makes this new role especially challenging. We talk every day and I try to get her what she needs via the Internet, but I feel like a hovering helicopter that too rarely comes in for a landing. It’s almost like being a news copter watching for a pending disaster. If something bad really happens, it’s the boots on the ground that will be the first responders while I watch helplessly from my safe distance. Needless to say, this is highly guilt inducing and minimally useful in a crisis.
I also hover over my three grown children and their spouses. I know this flyover is not really needed most of the time, but I can’t help it. And sometimes they actually want my help (much more often than they want my advice). When babies are born or kids are sick or sitters disappoint, they need me to stop hovering and land. That is easily done for the one who lives in town, occasionally for the one who lives three hours away, and (sadly) almost never for the one who is an airplane ride away. More guilt.
So what’s the deal with my eight grandchildren? Again, I’m hovering. Are they happy? Healthy? Needing anything special? The three in town are only five minutes away, so I land frequently. With the three in Indiana, I am able to see them reasonably often. The two in Boston think I live in a computer, but thank goodness for grandparenting via Skype. At least I can land on the iPad screen.
That’s three generations for me to worry about every morning. Three generations to shower with (often unwanted, I’m sure) advice. Like many of my friends, I have earned the label of helicopter child/parent/grandparent. But it does not feel like a badge of honor, as the media paints us as overly involved folks who are now spoiling multiple generations.
For these reasons, I was attracted to The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn. Maybe there was one expert who would tell me my helicopter approach to my loved ones wasn’t so damaging or evil?
In his book, Kohn reports that the damage done by over-parenting, parents who do too much for their kids and try to shield them from life’s hard knocks, is not as extensive as pop culture would have us believe. Contrary to media reports, there are no data that show that parents do too much for their kids.
In fact, Kohn states, “Children benefit, psychologically and in other ways, from having parents who are closely connected to them and involved in their lives.” He believes there is no ideal formula for connection and involvement. Some kids need more support, regardless of their age. Others, who don’t need as much, will actively resist it.
On the subject of helicopter parenting (even the multi-generational type to which I confess I am guilty), Kohn makes me feel better about it when he says, “How do we know when an intervention is excessive or developmentally inappropriate, or how much autonomy this child needs or wants?” Again, I go back to the old mantra we used to tell kids at the preschool I directed for many years: Fair is not giving everyone the same thing. Fair is giving everyone what he or she needs.
After reading Kohn’s book and reflecting on my situation, I agree that there are many reasons for helping and hovering. Some are healthier than others. But what appears to be over involvement to some observers may be someone’s response to a parent’s, child’s, or grandchild’s needs and anxiety, rather than the cause of it.
So, as I continue to hover and worry, I also firmly agree that Kohn’s list of what constitutes good parenting – “caring, supporting, listening, guiding, reconsidering, teaching, and negotiating” – are values I can’t abandon. Although it sometimes exhausts me, my helicopter is back in the air.