Do you know the fable about the gardener and the butterfly?
One day a gardener comes across a butterfly cocoon, hanging from a leaf. The sunlight is directly behind the cocoon, and the gardener can clearly see the shape of the young butterfly within. He notices it is squirming and moving, he perceives the butterfly to be struggling to emerge. After another couple of minutes, feeling sorry for the creature, he carefully makes a small tear in the delicate housing of the cocoon, hoping to ease the butterfly’s struggle, and helping it to emerge more easily. He is thrilled when he sees how the beautiful insect quickly emerges from its cocoon. Satisfied, he leaves the butterfly resting on the leaf, fully emerged and ready to fly off.
The following morning he returns to the same spot, and is devastated to see that the butterfly is lying dead beneath the leaf where he left it. On telling this sad story to his fellow gardeners, a wizened gardener of many years explains what happened.
“You did not allow the butterfly to struggle” he said simply, “it is during the struggle to emerge that the butterfly strengthens its wings. When you helped it, it emerged weakened and unable to fly.”
Struggle is a prerequisite to building strength and character, in children as well as butterflies; this is a cautionary tale not only for over-keen gardeners, but for parents prone to “over-parenting” or helicopter parenting.
Are you a helicopter parent?
So, are you a helicopter parent? Let’s look at a couple of characteristics:
- Fear: Helicopter parents tend to experience irrational fear that their children will be abducted on the way school, catch a dread disease or fall and break a leg in the playground. The response to this fear is to limit the child’s activities, and to try and accompany the child wherever they are going.
- Instant gratification: When your child expresses a need or desire you are compelled to meet it as soon as possible. No longer are children required to wait for their birthday or until after their chores are done to receive a gift or a treat; parents find it difficult to co-experience the relative anguish of unfulfilled needs of their children, and attempt to soothe their own anguish by fulfilling the child’s needs instantly.
- Dealing with disappointment: The classic “helicopter parent” scenario is to challenge teachers on a child’s poor grade. Instead of assisting the child to develop the emotional tools to deal with failure, parents try and fight the battle for them by physically trying to change a disappointing reality.
- Overly rigid structure: Helicopter parents tend to make all the decisions for their children, aiming to limit or reduce any unknown threats. They tend to control what activities the child does, what their hobbies should be and who their friends are. Children are not trusted to make age-appropriate decisions for themselves.
- Guilt: Helicopter parents are often influenced by the micromanagement they observe in other parents, and compare themselves with what they observe, often feeling guilty that they are “not doing enough”. If these parents already have self-esteem issues, or came from a childhood of neglect, they may already feel they are not good enough parents, and so will overcompensate, and so mimic what they see other overbearing parents do.
A few studies have begun to emerge that show that over-parenting can be associated with anxiety and social anxiety in children, and a soaring mental health epidemic on college campuses reveals that today's young adults are increasingly ill equipped for the rigors of campus life, a fact often associated with overprotective parents. A study in 2013 by the American College Health Association found that of nearly 100 000 college students, more than half had felt overwhelming anxiety, 57% felt loneliness, 61% felt sadness and 84% felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.
Admittedly, there has been quite a lot of hand-wringing about helicopter parenting, and ironically much of it can be found in the echo chambers that are parenting blogs — one of the most popular ways overbearing parents communally guilt each other into being better parents.
3 Good reasons to stop hovering over your child’s actions
I have therefore doubled my usual resolve in terms of fact finding to try and find the real research behind the effects of over parenting.
Let’s look at the three key reasons you should give yourself and your children a break:
- Anxiety: When a parent intervenes in a child’s activities, and helps them make decisions, they develop a belief that they themselves are not good enough. This can lead to anxiety and depression as a result of what psychologists call “maladaptive perfectionism”. It’s important to note that studies don’t show that over parenting causes anxiety and depression, but they are correlated.
- Independence: Controlling the choices and activities of a toddler is perfectly appropriate; however helicopter parents take this micromanagement into the adolescence and even young adulthood of their children. Another 2013 study found that students with hovering parents feel depressed by what the researchers called “a violation of the students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”
- Grit: I found one anecdote about two young female students who not only called 911 when they found a mouse in their off-campus dorm, but also required counseling afterwards. One can only extrapolate how wholly under-prepared they are for the real rigors of life as an adult. A study that compared intergenerational attitudes to work, has found that today’s generation is far more likely to quit. The authors theorized that overprotected children who don't get the marks they expect at university or the promotions they expected in their jobs, tend to quit sooner than previous generations.
It is important to acknowledge that today’s parents are caught in the grip of a number of fantasies and fears:
“An Ivy League education is worth more than happiness”,
“My child will not amount to anything unless I push him”,
“When I control my child’s life she is better off”,
“I feel better when my child is doing well.”
These beliefs are generally promulgated by conflicting advice and guidance that preys upon our own fears of inadequacy. We are also, in some respects, part of a helicopter society — where lawsuits and regulations have increased alongside the perception that our world is increasingly dangerous (my experience is that receiving your news primarily via social media can exacerbate this feeling).
The solutions are therefore slightly more complex, and require no small amount of introspection. A good place to start, if you do feel like making some changes to your parenting approach is here.
Keep an eye on the K-20 Blog! Next time I’ll explore strategies that teachers can employ in managing the over-anxious parent.
Thanks for reading!