A few days ago a friend of mine posted this article from Slate, "Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up: Helicopter parenting has caused my psychotherapy clients to crash land." The author is a mental health professional who's seen a dramatic rise in the number of millenials who end up in her office, unable to cope with their burgeoning adulthood.
I'm glad this author addresses the narcissism trope, which I'm so tired of:
It seems as if every article about millennials claims that these kids must all have narcissistic personality disorder. It’s easy to generalize an entire population by its collective Facebook statuses. However, narcissism is not Amy’s problem, or the main problem with millennials.
The big problem is not that they think too highly of themselves. Their bigger challenge is conflict negotiation, and they often are unable to think for themselves. The overinvolvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.
We've all heard this. People love to kvetch about helicopter parents; we pass around stories of parents who go on job interviews with their adult children, or who call colleges during the application process, pretending to be the high school student, or who step in for their high schooler, arguing for higher grade on tests. My sense is that these egregious stories are outliers, though there does seem to be an uptick in this helicopter mentality among certain socioeconomic groups, and I've seen plenty of examples of it myself.
My question is, why? Why are people choosing to parent this way? If we can get to the cause, we can start to correct it. I've heard a number of explanations:
- the increasing competitiveness of college admissions and the job market;
- the spiraling cost of higher education, leading to a "customer is always right" mentality;
- a media culture that likes to peddle fear of the bogeyman lurking behind over corner, to the point that parents are terrified to let their kids roam free in the world (figuratively and literally)
- a rejection of authoritarian, "do it my way" models of parenting in favor of a teaching/shepherding model. In theory, this shepherding model should be about equipping the child to make her own decisions and live in the world, but other factors combine to create a bitter result: buddy-buddy parents who are so petrified of their kids' failing that they flatten every bump in the road.
I suggest another cause underlying this stuff. I haven't heard it mentioned much, but I think it's a factor we shouldn't ignore. It has to do with time.
Nobody starts out intending to impersonate his child to a college admissions officer. It happens over a period of years, and it happens with a thousand tiny decisions, starting when they are young. Decisions like:
1. When my child is having an emotional reaction to something, am I able to stop what I'm doing and let them have their feelings, or am I going to find a quick and easy way to smooth things over?
2. If my child absolutely refuses to wear a coat, will I let them go without one and suffer the discomfort---and learn a valuable lesson---or am I going to "make" them wear one?
3. If a student is having a conflict with a teacher's teaching style, will I coach him first on how to address the issue, and support those efforts, intervening as a last resort? Or will I immediately swoop in and take over, demanding that the teacher conform to my child's learning style?
4. Am I going to let my child play freely on the monkey bars, knowing there's a teensy-tiny chance they could fall and break their arm, or worse? Or am I going to follow them around squawking "be careful, be careful" like a paranoid cockatoo?
I argue that the way you answer these questions, and a thousand others, is directly related to factors such as:
1. whether you've built any margins into your schedule to address a child's emotional life, as opposed to pacifying or appeasing them so you can get on to the next thing, or
2. your tolerance of a cold and complaining child, which is directly related to your own stress level, or
3. whether you're able do the hard work of coaching, which will take much longer than just doing it yourself, or
4. whether you have time for a trip to the emergency room. (OK, nobody really has ER time built into their schedule.)
I don't consider myself a helicopter parent by temperament. Sure, I hate as much as anyone to see my kids experience pain or loss, but I try to take the long view and understand that failures and setbacks build resilience. That said, the times that I find myself firing up the chopper are precisely those times when I am too busy, too stressed, or too anxious to stop and help the kids work through their issues. I'd rather solve it myself, brush my hands off, and get on with life.
But in this parenting business, short-cuts (while sometimes necessary) can be costly. One of my parenting mantras is "the harder thing is the easier thing." That is, doing what seems harder at the time is often easier in the long run: investing the time in helping a child understand her own emotions, or advocate for herself, pays huge dividends down the road. Building margins into my schedule is my biggest spiritual challenge at the moment, but I need to, not just for myself but for my children.
Because there's no way I'm accompanying them on a job interview.