Froma Harrop: Helicopter parents: Why do they hover so?

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

Helicopter parents are famous for micromanaging their children’s affairs. There are two kinds.

One kind indulges children to the point of near imbecility. No demands are ever placed, no chores required. The parents see their role as obedient servant, concierge and above all, banker. The children eventually become wards of the family estate.

The other kind pushes their offspring to excel in every nook and cranny of the American reward system. The goal post is a high-paying job, typically in finance or tech. Such children become what Yale educator William Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep” in his book of the same name.

What these helicopter parents have in common is their interest in commandeering every detail of their children’s lives. They drive teachers crazy and turn their kids into stress monkeys.

But what’s in it for the parents? Don’t they have a life? Even the most meager versions of a life require time attending to one’s own interests.

One such parent makes my jaw drop when she talks about her son. Jeff (not his name) is an artist living in Brooklyn, now pushing 30. He’s enjoyed some critical success, but his edgy and unintelligible works have yet to attract a paying audience. Bottom line is he has no bottom line.

This bothers his mother, so what does she do? She buys Jeff an apartment. That way he has some financial “security,” she explains. But the apartment cements him in place, just when he needs the flexibility to move, possibly far, for a job.

That’s not all my friend revealed to me. The kid’s new apartment has electrical problems. Jeff simply can’t deal with them, she says. He can’t gird his loins to call the electrician. So she girds hers, dealing with the electrician from 300 miles away. No point asking who pays the bill.

This is a woman who denies herself many middle-class comforts. When we met for lunch recently, she drove around for 20 minutes looking for free street parking rather than paying for a space closer to the restaurant.

Jeff is depressed, of course. A good-looking artist, he attracts a stream of glamorous girlfriends. But he can’t do love, so the girls move on. Does my friend see any relationship between her messed-up kid and her spineless parenting? Afraid to ask.

Deresiewicz writes mostly about the hovering taskmasters. These parents drive their children to amass the sort of numbers — grades, SAT scores, extracurriculars, honors, majors — that scream success to picky college admissions officers.

The end result is a child commanding a high income, a big-ticket manse and a lifelong depression.

Again, what do their parents get out of it? On the surface, bragging rights. Deeper inside, writes the psychologist Madeline Levine, the parents are filling up “their own brittle selves with their children’s accomplishments.”

By the way, the parents don’t receive affection in return for what they assume is their sacrifice. Levine found the generations in such families less connected, if anything, than in poor ones.

Deresiewicz regards both kinds of parents — the pressuring, critical type and the hyperindulgent type — as two sides of a similar parenting style.

“Pressuring your kids to get an A in calculus when they are 17 is essentially the same as tying their shoelaces for them when they are eight,” Deresiewicz writes. “Both are ways of treating them as if they can’t do anything for themselves.”

Both styles emerge from the belief that one can protect children from pain and struggle. It’s a flawed belief ending in sadness.

And what a waste of affluence.


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