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

Why are today’s parents so much more likely to micromanage than previous generations? One theory, posits Todd Kashdan, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at George Mason University, is that it’s no longer just about the kids.

“If what your children do becomes linked to your own personality as a parent, then you become extra fearful about them failing,” he says. “You become extra concerned if they’re falling below what the average kid is doing. You get obsessed about small stakes and small time periods.”

And with tools like Facebook providing a running news feed on the accomplishments of other people’s kids, it’s all too easy for parents to fixate on how their own children match up, and to perceive any shortcoming on the part of their child as their own failure. Around here, most of us are accustomed to winning.

A less cynical view is that most parents who intervene and hover do so simply because they want to protect their kids from pain.

“How do I let my kids fail so they can learn how to pick themselves back up and problem-solve?” says Douglas Park resident Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, a professor in the theater department at George Washington University and managing director of Arlington’s Educational Theater Company, a drama program for kids from preschool through high school. “Because it kills you to see them fail. It hurts because you love them so much.”

And yet, she says, parents who try to cushion every fall and soften every blow are doing their kids a disservice. She remembers one GW parent—a “high-powered lawyer”—who called her to contest his son’s grade in her class. (He got a B.) The dad made excuses and explained that his son was having roommate problems, which, he assured her, he was also “taking care of.”

“Parents are constantly bailing their kids out,” even at the college level, says Kitsos-Kang, herself a mother of two. “What I see [as a result] is students who don’t know how to do things for themselves. They don’t know how to manage their time…to balance academics, social clubs and things like that. They call their parents to fill out their study abroad forms and to register them for classes. They don’t learn the skill of making choices and prioritizing, because their parents are doing it for them.”

Such spoon-feeding may seem nurturing when the kids are little, but it can backfire later on. In a recent study of college students in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, students who described their own parents as controlling or helicoptering reported increased levels of depression and dissatisfaction, in part due to feelings of incompetence.

“Parents have taken over way too much,” asserts author and syndicated columnist Marguerite Kelly, whose “Family Almanac” column appears weekly in The Washington Post. “[They] don’t expect as much of their kids as they should.”

For example, more and more parents now excuse their kids from doing chores or even family dinner for fear that they can’t handle their homework load. The exemption is meant to be supportive, but ultimately ends up registering as a vote of no confidence.

And then there’s the issue of respect, Kelly says, which is so inextricably linked to true self-esteem. “Respect is not hovering when you really want to desperately know [what’s wrong]. It’s not directing their lives even when you know they’re making a mistake. Unless it’s about safety.”

Which brings up another significant driver of the helicopter-parenting phenomenon: fear.

“I used to ride my bike all over the neighborhood and be gone for several hours,” reminisces Carole Roan Gresenz, 43, a professor of health economics at Georgetown University who lives in McLean. At the same time, she admits, “I’m reluctant to give my own kids that much free rein.”

Few of us can forget the milk cartons of our youth, imprinted with photos of missing children, or the foreboding razor-blade-in-the-apple story, which prompted multitudes of parents to screen their kids’ Halloween candy with more diligence than a TSA security agent.

Kashdan blames the media, in large part, for perpetuating a culture of fear in which parents are terrified to let kids out of their sight.

“I think parents believe that…our greatest fears of abduction and abuse and bullying or really early sexual activity…that all these things are on the rise, [but in actuality] none of these things have increased over time,” he says. “It’s just the amount of attention that the media has given to [these topics] makes them seem so salient. Our brains are so attracted to possible threats that we forget that the probability of these events is low.”

Still, such rationalizations are of little comfort to those of us who came of age as parents in the time of Sept. 11, the D.C. sniper rampage, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and, most recently, the Cleveland kidnappings.

“My perception is that there are more evils in the world now that I need to protect them from,” says Betsy Brown. “And whether that’s something the media has created or whether I myself have chosen to buy into it is neither here nor there. It’s my reality, and it’s been the reality around here.”

Categories: Parents & Kids