How to not be a helicopter parent (but still stay in the airport)

Children these days live in worlds that are highly structured and overscheduled. Whether it is playdates, schoolwork, clubs, volunteer work, or sports, life gets busy very quickly and parents become full-time administrative assistants to make sure everything gets done. Well-meaning parents can take over many aspects of their child’s lives because the intent is to keep their child “on course”. This makes sense in theory, however, in the long run, it does not help children learn the skills they need to be successful as adults. These skills include organization, delayed gratification, autonomy/responsibility, initiative, accepting disappointment and reformulating a plan.

So what does it mean to be a “helicopter parent”? Well in short, it means that the parent is overly involved in their child’s life, and do not let them learn from their mistakes or from normal childhood experiences. For example, they may take on their child’s school projects, argue with teachers/professors about grades and choose their child’s college.

Now there are certainly times where it makes sense for parents to take control of situations and monitor them closely. This would be in the case of safety or age-appropriateness. Obviously, the first time you let your child drive a car by themselves, you would have some rules and limits around that activity. Or when allowing children to have a cell phone for the first time, you would have some boundaries regarding when or where they can use their phone. Or for younger children, you would monitor them getting used to doing chores around the house.

For situations that don’t necessarily fall in those categories, here are some specific examples of ways to not be a helicopter parent, but “stay in the airport”:

Fostering self-esteem: Make it clear that you love and value your child, even when he/she has misbehaved (“I’m very disappointed in what you’ve done but I still love you very much” “That homework looks challenging, but I am proud of you for doing your best”). Model good self-esteem and healthy habits for your child.

Self-regulation: It can be tempting to jump in and fix situations but children find it most helpful when parents listen, validate their concerns and offer assistance only when needed and in a way that the child will find helpful (“Those kids were really mean. It’s natural you would feel embarrassed about what they said. Is there something that I can do?”)

Delayed gratification: Teach your children the value of time and money, the satisfaction of achieving something through hard work and the importance of planning ahead. (Meeting friends at the mall, don’t drop everything to be the chauffeur. Ask your child to schedule things in advance with you. For activities–sports or otherwise, ask your child to choose carefully and stick with the activity for the duration to keep their word. For buying clothes/toys, consider asking your child to “pay” a portion of the item from their allowance, time doing chores, or from their salary if they are old enough to work).

It is important to remember that changes may not be immediately apparent, so be patient. Changes take time. Negative behavior may escalate in the short term as your child may try to see if they can persuade you to give in. Stay firm and consistent and before you know it, you will see responsible and independent young individuals right before your eyes. And maybe you will get to go on a beach vacation with that helicopter that you won’t have to use anymore.


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