Mommy and me, all the time: The dangers of helicopter parenting

Imagine a warm, sunny day on Cross Campus. As you study, leaning against a tree, you tilt your head back and notice a bird’s nest sitting in the branches above you. You wait there long enough to see a mother robin flying back to feed her young. This lovely display of maternal care is part of a larger evolutionary process that all species go through in different ways. Every spring, the American robin lays two or three clutches of eggs. After two weeks of incubation and two weeks of intense care, the baby birds are ready to leave the nest. With some help from the parents over the next four weeks, the robins learn how to fend for themselves, how to build their own nests, and how to court young birds of the opposite sex. These birds then move on to adulthood, raising their own young and feeding their own families without help from their parents, and the cycle begins again. Sound familiar?

From American robins to human beings, species across the planet go through the process of raising their offspring, teaching them the skills they will need to survive as adults. Whether those skills are nest building or saying please and thank you, the ultimate goal is to teach members of the next generation self-sufficiency and arm them with knowledge that will enable them to raise their own offspring one day. But while the robin has been raising its young in the exact same way, generation after generation, human beings have run through many notions of what it means to be parents. Parenting styles are constantly changing, and not always for the better.

In February of this year, a Maryland resident named Alexander Meitiv almost lost his children to Child Protective services. His crime? Allowing his ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to walk home on their own from a playground down the block. The children, Rafi and Dvora, were escorted home and interrogated by a police officer who forced Alexander to sign a legal contract saying that he would never leave his children unsupervised again. While this story is disturbing in its own right, it is indicative of a larger problem: the overprotection of children. In the effort to keep kids safe, our society has created a standard of parenting and supervision that keeps kids (sometimes literally) on a tight leash.

Many of the other species around us have maintained the same cycle of child-rearing and letting go for millennia. Why have we changed? It seems that the culture of intense supervision that humans have developed in the past few decades stems from an overbearing desire to keep children safe from any potential harm.

And yet, according to studies performed by Holly Schiffrin and her colleagues at the University of Mary Washington, kids with overinvolved parents report higher levels of depression and a decreased satisfaction with their lives. They are more likely, according to LeMoyne and Buchanan (2011), to use prescription drugs for depression and to experience a decreased sense of autonomy.

At some point, it’s necessary to let children try things for themselves. Little steps, like walking home from the bus stop without mom for the first time, or going down the block alone to borrow eggs from a neighbor, are necessary precursors to the larger stages of early adulthood, like driving a car without a parent in the front seat, or heading off to college for the first time. We cannot expect children to succeed in the long run if they are not given gradually more freedom and responsibility to learn how to successfully maneuver in the world. Today’s adults, who were raised in a society that gave kids the freedom to play at the playground with other kids and walk home with their brother or sister when they were done, now find themselves in a society that arrests parents who allow their ten-year-olds to walk home from the park without supervision, a society that teaches kids to fear the dangers of the world around them and to always rely on parents to protect them from those dangers.

In her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Julie Lythcott-Haims says the shift in mentality seems to have started in the mid-1980’s, with the rise in awareness about child abductions and the emergence of “Missing” ads on the backs of milk cartons. The premier of the show “America’s Most Wanted” in 1988 only spurred the rising fear. The mounting paranoia ushered in the new concept of the scheduled playdate, which intended to raise the level of supervised playtime among kids. To this day, however, many parents continue to internalize this cultivated suspicion, leading them to exercise an overbearing authority over their children. Whether willingly or unwillingly, they are being shuttled into a new parenting style: helicopter parenting.

In letting their kids walk home from the playground alone, the Meitivs were giving their kids a chance to exercise responsibility. They seem to have understood that we learn by doing. When a person practices a skill, it leads to a shift in the large-scale networks of the brain, and it increases the brain activity in regions associated with self-reflexive activities. What this means is that as you practice a skill, your brain actually strengthens the synapses, or neuronal connections, that were used during that skill in a process called long-term potentiation. This fortifies the link between necessary neurons and allows the skill to become second nature. Neurologically, then, a child needs to utilize the adult life skills that they learn about in order for them to become internalized.

If you tell children that they should look both ways when they cross the street, but never let them use that knowledge on their own, they will not learn. If you tell children that they should always look out for the other kids with them when walking home alone, but do not give them the opportunity to walk home alone, they will not remember. If you tell children that they should always know who to call if they are in an unsafe situation, but never allow them to find those boundaries, how can you expect them to know when they are not safe or know how to get help?

Adulthood is not a label you get when you turn eighteen. It is a process that takes years of building trust and responsibility. Helicopter parenting may protect children from the rare horror-story individual who is seeking to do them harm, but it does a lot of irreversible damage by not allowing them to grow up. If we learn by doing, kids are learning now that their parents should be with them at all times, that they cannot be responsible for themselves, and that there are dangers awaiting them if they ever venture off alone. These kids will not have enough time to build the neural connections of a mature adult before being expected to implement the skills of self-sufficiency that they were not given the opportunity to learn. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the other species in our ecosystem and remind ourselves that at some point, baby birds need to leave the nest.

Aviva Abusch is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at aviva.abusch@yale.edu.

(Featured image from the Huffington Post.)

Revision: A previous version of this post incorrectly listed the premier date of the show “America’s Most Wanted” as 1888.