Handle with Care

From helicopter moms to snowplow dads, we are more involved in our kids’ lives than ever before. Are we better parents than our parents were? Or have we gone too far?

Photo by Michael Ventura


I played varsity tennis in high school but my parents never came to a single match. There were no cheering sections, no homemade cookies, no hand-painted signs. I usually walked home alone afterward with my racket and backpack in hand. Such was the parenting style of our parents’ generation—one that my younger sister describes as “benign neglect.”

Friends my age (I am 50) tell stories of similar upbringings. Back then, we roamed our neighborhoods and climbed trees without adult supervision; formed ever-shifting alliances on the playground; and struggled—sometimes painfully—to find our place in the social pecking order.

Our moms and dads had children at a much younger age, and seemed blissfully unaware of all that could go wrong at each stage of our development. In many ways they were still growing up themselves, even as they became parents.

Our generation? Not so much. In Arlington County, where 70 percent of adults over 25 have at least one college degree—compared with a national average of 30 percent —we tend to wait until we’ve met our academic and professional goals before we reproduce. (The average age for a new mother in Virginia and the District is now 26, up from 21 in 1970, according to the Centers for Disease Control.) We carefully plan each pregnancy, channel funds into 529 college plans and load up on folic acid. We read the latest research on the adolescent brain and alternative learning styles. We learn how to defuse power struggles with our kids by attending workshops such as “Celebrate Calm” with behavioral consultant Kirk Martin (one of the many recent offerings in Arlington Public Schools’ “Parent Academy”).

As older parents, we offer more life perspective and, in some cases, more financial stability. Our kids have access to every kind of lesson under the sun, from ice dancing to Arabic to bassoon. We pay private tutors up to $225 an hour to help them prepare for the SAT or to pass that Advanced Placement course (the one that will earn them college credit before they even get there). We take parenting very, very seriously.

And sometimes we drive ourselves crazy. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be good parents and to make the right decision for our kids,” says Dominion Hills resident Brenda Nardone, 37, a stay-at-home mom and the president of Mothers of North Arlington (MONA), a local support network with more than 2,000 members. “We really research our decisions—what to feed them, what kind of car seat, which preschools. It’s a great [skill] when you’re looking for a pediatric ophthalmologist, but not so great when it can lead to hours of frustration at Babies R Us choosing a bouncy seat.”

Neurotic as we may seem, our intentions are good. “For the most part, parents [today] are more informed than the generation before,” says Gloria Carpenter, a psychotherapist with offices in Ballston. “We’re using more evidence-based or scientific methods to parent.”

Perhaps this tendency has also made us more risk-averse. Unlike our parents, who generally allowed us to take our knocks and learn from our mistakes, many present-day parents see it as their mission to save their kids from faltering in the first place—whether it’s feeding their son lines for his haiku homework assignment; talking their daughter out of auditioning for a part in the school play that she likely will not get; or confronting the parents of the mean girl who has polarized the Brownie troop.

It’s no wonder that the newer waves of Type-A parents have been alternately described as “helicopter parents” who swoop in at the slightest sign of distress, or “snowplow parents” dedicated to clearing any obstacles that stand in their kids’ path to success.

In Norway, the metaphor is “curling parents.” (Picture the Olympic sport in which athletes frantically brush away any debris on the ice that might prevent their stone from reaching its fullest potential.)

Categories: Parents & Kids