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Is helicopter parenting a real thing?: Pop psych vs. Research

Tiger parenting or attachment parenting? Helicopter parenting or free-range parenting? Kids used to behave better, used to be smarter. We’re plummeting in education compared to the rest of the world. In the U.S., much of our media can smell fear. Tiger parents make us worry that our children are going to fail educationally and professionally relative to China. The Sputnik moment of our generation. Attachment parents make us worry that we are pushing our children toward too much independence. Helicopter parents make us think that we must monitor our children’s every move to make sure we are as involved as we can possibly be. Free-range parents remind us that children need to learn to be independent. Too much advice. Too many pendulum swings. How much of this comes from science? Some of the shifts might have been the fault of science decades ago, but there has been a reasonable amount of consensus on parenting for some time now.

In child development, parenting is a well-mined topic. We actually do know if screaming at your kids about grades helps them achieve (not really) or if society has gone downhill because of declines in corporal punishment (it hasn’t. Upwards of 90% of parents still spank their kids, which turns out not to be such a good thing.) So when the Tiger mother book came out, I waited for the media to go to the experts to discuss parenting. They didn’t. Instead, every Tom, Dick, and Harry out there who writes a column or a blog got in the game. They based their columns on… personal experience, the experience of being parented or of parenting. Generally the message was, “ I did this, and I turned out okay.” Even the Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial on the topic. The take home message was: the most important thing to do as a parent is to be involved, and the nature of that involvement does not so much matter. Is that true? Anyone seen Mommy Dearest lately?

So what does science tell us? In child development research, these catchy terms don’t really exist. Rather, we use the term authoritative parenting to describe the style of parenting that seems to be most effective for child outcomes across the board: academic, social, emotional. This term comes from work by Diana Baumrind, but has since been expanded by other researchers. Authoritative parenting is marked by a combination of three elements: warmth/involvement, moderate control/firmness, and moderate autonomy granting. What this means is these parents are sensitive to their children’s emotional, set clear limits and discipline consistently (see column ___ for more on that topic), and allow their children room to make decisions and solve problems for themselves as is developmentally appropriate.

So what does that magic formula look like in real life? It means that parents are warm and loving with their children in whatever style of expression is culturally comfortable. That can be physical affection and overt praise, or it can be more subtle. It means that parents stay involved in their children’s schools and social worlds and spend time with their children. This does not require a stay-at-home parent, but can be negotiated around a work schedule. It means that when children misbehave, parents apply consistent consequences and explain what the child did wrong and why. Authoritative parents also encourage children to treat others with kindness and to stand up for their ideas. These parents allow children to try to work out some of their own problems, stepping in when children are in over their heads, but allowing a little bit of struggle. When children struggle too much, authoritative parents give the children a little help and encourage them to try again so that the children can experience their own successes.

There is room for many different flavors of authoritative parenting that accommodate different cultures, family structures, and personality types. Parents may differ in disciplinary methods, but the common denominator will be that children understand where they went wrong and know exactly what to expect should they consider misbehaving in that manner again. One parent may show more physical affection than another, but children in both families can feel secure and loved. Based on family circumstances, parents may also differ on what they deem safe or prudent in terms of gaining independence. Some children are ready to go on play dates without parents in preschool, and others need supervision or assistance to promote positive social interaction. Some kids are ready to walk to school with a friend at 8 or 9 years, and others may not be ready because they are impulsive or live in an unsafe neighborhood. As so it goes. There is no specific magic formula. No one discipline method that words for all children. No one course of action to produce musical geniuses or academic stars. No one plan that leads to emotionally competent children who sleep through the night reliably.

There are a few strategies or styles that seem to be less effective. A parenting style knows as permissive parenting is marked by warmth, but also inconsistent involvement, very little parental control, and very high autonomy granting. In other words, the kids run the show from a very early age. People often view these parents as “spoiling” their children because the parents tend to give in to child demands very quickly. What do children look like with this plan? Generally, children turn out to be whiny, prone to tantrums, and low achievers. They get into all sorts of trouble as teens on the loose. On the flip side, authoritarian parents lack in warmth, punish harshly and frequently, and allow for little or no autonomy with the children. Children raised with this style of parenting tend to lack initiative and may either become angry and aggressive or depressed and withdrawn. Neither of these formulas tend to produce the competent, happy children that ultimately develop with an authoritative parenting style.

Where do attachment, free-range, helicopter, and Tiger parents fall under this rubric? They don’t. Because the specific prescriptions of these plans (where you sleep, how you feed your child, how often you call or don’t call, what activities your children do outside of school) are just the details. They are the style without any substance. The crux of parenting is not the little decisions we make, but the emotional tone we set for our children and the way we try to steer their development as human beings. It is about developing initiative, empathy, and social skills, not violin, straight As, or the ability to navigate the train independently. Formulas sell books because they are easy to follow. But in parenting, it is not so much what you do as who and how you are.

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