In Defense of Helicopter Parents
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s always easier to understand the why of most things when you’re looking back in time.
In a prior life, I defended clients in court. More often than not, they did something wrong. Often, the crime was a symptom of a much larger problem. You know, like alcohol misuse, or drug abuse.
With juvenile clients, the larger problem was usually more complex. And, any good juvenile judge would want to help solve the larger problem, not just punish the crime. So getting to the bottom of the behavior was an important part of the job.
This wasn’t anything they taught in law school. It was just a skill you had to develop. To represent your client meant giving the judge a clear picture of what was going on at home, at school, or in the neighborhood.
To this day, hearing about criminal behavior in the news gets my wheels turning. Especially when its behavior that seems out of character for the alleged criminal. My brain instinctively starts looking for clues to the larger problem.
In the past week, or so, the criminal behavior that keeps appearing in the news is that of parents. Parents bribing a way forward for their kids. Securing them spots at elite universities.
A by-product of this reporting seems to be a critical evaluation of all parents. Not just those accused in the scandal. Now, we see articles condemning the “helicopter,” “lawn mower,” and “snowplow” parents. You know, parents that seek to solve problems for their kids, rather than letting their kids fail. And learn.
It’s easy to point the finger. So easy to pass judgment. But, what if we took the time to try to understand what underlies the behavior of these parents? Not just the parents willing to commit criminal acts. But the parents willing to do their kids’ homework. Or argue with a teacher about a grade. Or confront a coach about playing time. What makes parents behave this way?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending the behavior. I didn’t defend my clients’ behavior either. But, you can’t fully correct the offending behavior without at least trying to understand the context. Apply a little hindsight. Get to the larger problem.
For the sake of easy numbers, let’s say that the offending parents’ behavior — the helicopter, lawnmower, and snowplow behavior — began to appear, in noticeable numbers, 20 years ago. And, let’s say those parents, at that time, were thirty-something. That would mean that the first generation of offending parents were born in the late 60s and early 70s.
They grew up in the 70s and 80s. They started work in the late 80s and early 90s. What about their experience was different?
What if we looked at their wage growth in comparison to their productivity?
Today, we can see that this cohort of parents started working during a time when wage growth stalled out. Productivity continued to grow, but wages didn’t keep the same pace.
They were working hard. Hard enough that productivity continued to rise. But, unlike their parents’ generation, compensation did not rise at a corresponding rate. And, this continued. For years on end. It’s still like this today. Nearly 40 years of wages not keeping pace with productivity.
I’m a member of this cohort. I began working in 1988. I know first hand how it felt to work hard and not achieve the same results as the generation before.
But, when it was happening, no one told us that our time was different. If you sought out answers. Looked for advice. Tried to figure out why you were falling behind. Inevitably, what you read and heard was that you just needed to work harder. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
There was no other explanation. You were bound to take it personally.
So, when it came to raising kids. When it came to wanting for them what every parent wants — for them to have it better than you. What were you to do? You were working hard. But, it wasn’t working.
So, maybe, you looked around and you decided to control what you could. To influence what was right in front of you. Maybe that’s what seemed most natural. With a little effort, you could seemingly make your kid’s life better by making it easier.
Other parents saw what was happening, and started to do the same thing. And, it began. Parents were labeled as helicopters. Then they were lawnmowers. Now they are snowplows.
I completely understand the perils with this kind of parenting. Absolutely, I do. But, rather than reading articles that condemn the practice, for once, I’d like to see someone try to understand where it’s coming from. And, then offer help.
Instead of just labeling and criticizing. Instead of shock and outrage. How about help. Help parents understand it. So they can correct it.
In my mind, we can start by being honest. By telling parents that it’s true. That many of them aren’t as well off as their parents. That looking back we can now see what went wrong. And, that we can start to correct it. Or change it. For our kids.
Maybe, for the sake of our kids, we stop defining success by the metrics of baby boomers. We stop trying to live up to an impossible standard. It’s been dead for 40 years.
Maybe, we tell our kids that times have changed. That things are different. That having it better doesn’t necessarily mean more money, more things.
Maybe better means more meaningful work. More focus on family. More time to be human, rather than a cog.
Better yet, maybe we should ask our kids how they define success. Then, we work together to get our kids there. Where they want to be.