How to Avoid Being a Helicopter Parent

Does this type of parenting help or hurt a child?

In sixth grade, I had a teacher for three hours in a row. He and I started off well enough, but as the year progressed, we began to have a clash of personalities. Never before had I ever encountered this with a teacher, and I wasn’t old or mature enough to understand how to deal with it. So I did what any immature middle school student would do—I acted out.

I would talk a lot and even played my trumpet (I’m a self-professed band nerd) in his class once. The teacher decided to strike back and put me in a far corner of the room. I was totally removed from all the other students and was no longer able to disrupt the class. But that didn’t stop the blaming. Whenever there was a disruption from the class, the first words from his lips were, “Joe.” It didn’t matter that I could no longer do anything, in his mind I was still the culprit.

It came to a head when report cards came out. I was failing all three of his classes! How could this be? I had turned in all my assignments and did well on tests. My parents and I didn’t understand what was going on. So you know what they did? They stormed up to the school, had a huge argument with the principals and teacher, threatened a lawsuit and everything went really well for me the rest of the year. That teacher wouldn’t even so much as look at me! My parents had scared him that bad.

No, that’s not what happened at all. My parents sat down with me, and we worked on the problem. They made an appointment for me to go see my school counselor. I met with him several times, and we came to the conclusion that I should be transferred to another teacher for those classes. When we did, my grades immediately improved, and life went on as normal.

My parents allowed me to work through the problem and find a solution that worked for everyone. They didn’t leave me to my mistakes and not help, but they certainly did not swoop in and take over the situation.

You know what kind of parents I’m talking about. There’s even a name for them—helicopter parents. Parents who hover just above their children waiting for any signs of distress so they can fly in and take care of the situation. Parents who do not allow for any failure or negative experiences in their child’s life. Parents who teach their children that everything in life is a bed of roses.

CNN recently a posted an article called, “Are millennials cut out for this job market?

“Having been told their whole lives that they were 'special' and destined for greatness, she says, millennials are unequipped for setbacks. They feel entitled to the best of everything. And they want it now; since they were raised in a fast-food, drive-thru, high-speed Internet culture that believes waiting is for suckers,” the article states.

Since birth they have been given an A for effort, a trophy for showing up, and no losing—we tied! Because an entire generation was not allowed to fail growing up, it is failing as adults.

As a parent, I know firsthand how easy it would be to drop in and make sure that my son and daughter don’t experience hardships or failure. I would love to make sure that kid never says those things to my daughter again. I would go crazy if my sweet girl would never struggle in math again. But if I did those things, what does that tell my daughter or son? How does that prepare them for a world that will not hand them anything? How do they learn to get up after being knocked down?

Here are a few tips I remind myself of:

Your children need to fail

One of the single most important lessons I’ve learn in life and leadership is that failure is an event, not a person. My failures in life have taught me valuable lessons I would not have learned otherwise. Our children have to fail. They must learn how to handle it, process it, learn from it and move on all the wiser. 

Zig Ziglar is quoted as saying “Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.” And sometimes we need to allow our children to go down that detour.

You can’t fight all their battles

I have worked with parents through the years who tried to fight every single battle their child faced. Whether it was a coach, teacher, or peer that parent jumped in and made excuses for everything under the sun. They would argue and fight until they were red in the face and continue until they had worn their opponent down. But what did they win? Nothing.

Students have got to learn how to deal with difficult people and situations now. If not, they will learn them the hard way in the workforce. Do you think a boss or professor is going to tell little Johnny that it’s OK something wasn’t done and excuse poor effort because he’s special? It’s not going to happen.

Allowing our students to work through issues while still at home provides them with a safety net if it gets to be too big a problem, yet still offers them the chance to find a productive solution. If they don’t get those chances, in a loving environment, they will once they’re gone.

Don’t overschedule them

I have seen, and I’m not alone, an alarming trend in parenting today. Parents enroll their children in many activities wanting them to be well-rounded people. But what ends up happening is parents have stressed out kids. I’ve even seen parents have their student playing two or even three sports at the same time!

What happened to kids being kids? 

Allow for your student to have downtime. Allow for your child to be bored sometimes. Don’t underestimate your children's ability to be creative in those times. You don’t need to have everything spelled out for them. Let them have room.

I would suggest a rule that we have in our home: One activity per semester. It can be hard, but we have made this rule and it stands fast. There’s no bending or moving it. Pick your sport or activity and do that one thing. Now maybe that one thing doesn’t last all semester, so when it ends our daughter can pick another. But our kids are not allowed to pursue two sports or activities at the same time.

Allow other adults to speak into their lives

Throughout my 12 years of working with families, I’ve seen that the parents most successful in raising their children to be productive adults have this in common: They allow for other role models in their childrens’ lives. These parents are intentional about the other adults in their family’s life. These parents allow their children space to go to these trusted adults when coming to them is uncomfortable. These parents understand that their kids won’t always seek their advice first, so building other adult friendships is paramount.

And speaking as an adult who many teens turn to, it is my greatest honor to partner with parents in building those relationships. When a student comes to me with frustrations or questions, I am able to reiterate what their parents already are saying, just in a different way and with a different perspective. Doing so offers students the same values and advice from another trusted adult.

My children are my greatest gift in life. Their mother and I see them as the best thing we have done. We want the world to see and treat them accordingly. The truth is, this will not always happen. Our kids will experience heartbreak and failure. They will learn that life is often unfair. They will see that cheaters sometimes do win. But what they do with those lessons is up to us.

Ray Antonacci November 08, 2011 at 03:45 PM
Joe, I agree with your article about our children needing to work through problems. As the parent of a teenager who players select baseball, I see fathers who hover around the coach. These fathers befriend the coach and tell the coach how good their boy is and more times than not these boys get more playing time or the position they want. I pointed this out to my son and he sees it as well. I had to explain to him that I'm not that dad and he is going to have to earn his position and playing time. He says he understands and that he want to earn it himself. Now is the time for him to things that are unfair. He has to experience success and failure now while he is young and I can help guide him. In a few short years he'll be a man and my job will be done. All I can hope is that I didn't fail him.
Joe Smith November 09, 2011 at 03:20 PM
Ray Good thoughts man. Thank you for sharing your story. Sports is a difficult and touchy issue these days, so thank you for not only setting the example w/ your son but sharing that so other parents don't feel so intimidated. Blessings


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