In Defense of The Much-Maligned Helicopter Parent – And What Comes Next

The term “Helicopter Parent” was coined in the late 1960’s by Dr. Haim Ginott, who quoted a student describing his mother, who “hovers over me like a helicopter…”  Although in light use through the late 1990’s, the term’s usage gained momentum in the early 2000’s as a new generation of technology-connected young adults, raised in the safety-and-self-esteem-obsessed everyone-gets-a-trophy 80’s and 90’s, began appearing on college campuses.  College administrators were aghast that parents were calling their children to wake them up for class, or worse, calling professors and deans to complain about professors, assignments, and grades.  Clearly the times were changing.

Much has been written about the erosion of young adult resiliency, and many fingers have been pointed at the trophy-for-participation culture and the Helicopter Parent, but I believe there is a key distinction to be made here.  There is the reactive Blackhawk Helicopter Parent – the one who hovers, guns at the ready, to fend off all unpleasantness, thus eliminating the opportunity for their child to experience challenges and develop resiliency skills.  It is now a fact that college campuses are having to deal with a new cohort within the student culture, and the trend is creeping both up and down the age continuum.  These types of Helicopter Parents can now be seen circling everywhere, from pre-school play rooms to corporate job searches (hint – don’t be a part of the 4% of parents who actually attend their college graduate’s first job interview!).

But not all Helicopters are Blackhawks, and with all of this hand wringing about the demise and collapse of our current generation of young people, and all of the fingers being pointed at a tendency to over-parent, it may be time to take a step back and recognize, even congratulate the successes of Helicopter Parents of students with learning differences, autism spectrum traits, and mental health challenges.  For the most part, these are not the much-maligned Blackhawks, but rather News Crews, hovering to keep tabs on their child’s tenuous development, in order to inform the next best possible steps.  They are Transporters, who shuttle students to and from various support networks, plucking and depositing them deftly around the city.  And they are Life-Flight crews, who occasionally do have to swoop in to perform critical emergency or disaster relief, when their student’s unique challenges call for a level of sophisticated advocacy beyond their years.

The fact that more and more of these atypical students are even making it to college is a testament to these “Helicopter Parents’” hard work, determination, willingness to fight for their child’s rights, and capacity to overcome personal, familial, community, and institutional resistance, friction, and challenges.  These parents have had to become experts in accommodating and supporting their children’s anxiety, depression, addiction, autism, ADHD, psychopharmacology, Executive Functioning, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, or Social Pragmatics.  They have had to sit through countless hours of IEP or 504 meetings, teach the teachers special education, find and work with tutors or therapists, and constantly hunt down the next opportunity to help their child grow.  These are not parents who have hovered needlessly, instead, these are parents whose children have developed because of, not despite, their parent’s continuous involvement and oversight.  These are not just Helicopter Parents, they are Advocates, Educators, and Partners in their children’s development, and they deserve support and appreciation from all of us.

With all the work that it’s taken to get these students through high school, when it comes to their children making real strides towards independence as young adults, these parents are faced with the real challenge of having to hold back on and suppress the (effective and necessary) patterns that eighteen-plus years of hovering have ingrained.  All that hard work and hands-on attention was for a purpose, but clearing the air space so an adolescent can grow UP into an independent young adult takes even more courage, skill, and support for their parents than did all the years of necessary circling.  Letting go of those tendencies also means learning new skills, and techniques, to practice, perfect and lean on if and when challenges arise.

At Mansfield Hall, we work closely with parents and families in order to help navigate this sometimes tumultuous and turbulent transition from parenting an adolescent to parenting a young adult.  Mansfield Hall staff are able to serve in loco parentis as families are given the opportunity to step back a bit, and let their student experience increased, but supported, independence at the college level.  In addition to partnering with families and students to structure the transition, Mansfield Hall provides families with regular updates as to their student’s progress, as well as partners with parents to negotiate all types of developmentally appropriate transitions, from cell-phone and computer usage, to free-time allocation and activities, to weekly allowances.  In addition to the network of support within Mansfield Hall, we also provide families access to Parent Coach Professionals, a third-party relationship which allows parents to get their own coaching and support, independent of Mansfield Hall, in order to help ease and structure the transition.

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says that there are three ways we might be overparenting or accidently causing harm:

  1. When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
  2. When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
  3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.

At Mansfield Hall we work to empower our students to learn and practice things they can do for themselves, and to practice resiliency and advocacy skills by trying new things they can almost do for themselves.  Our student-centered coaching and goal setting Student Led Plans also allow for students to express their own motivations, hopes, and dreams, and family communication and Parent Coaching all helps to clear the air space, so that our students can grow UP.

If you’d like to learn more about Mansfield Hall, Parent Coach Professionals, or any of our supports and services, please find us online at www.mansfieldhall.org, contact us at [email protected], or call us at 877-205-3785.

Jake Weld, M. Ed., is the Director of Admissions and Business Development at Mansfield Hall, with locations in both Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.