Why We Hyperparent, Helicopter and Heavily Manage Our Children

Look around, there is no acceptable alternative to the disappearing village.

It’s official: American kids are wimps. As the post-Millennial generation starts to leave the nest, growing numbers of professors and employers are noticing something that therapists have been discussing for awhile: this generation is far too fragile.

They’re terrified of failure. They can’t take a jokeThey want trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect them from scary ideas. Admittedly, there are upsides to this middle-aged cautiousness: compared to their parents at similar ages, teens today are more leery of recreational drugs and less likely to get pregnant. They do love their prescription medications, however. Antidepressants and prescription stimulants play a big role in high school and college life today.  

How did we end up with so many can’t-do young people? One theory (popularized by figures like Leonore Skenazy and Hannah Rosin) is that American kids have been coddled and overprotected into a state of helpless, fearful dependence. Modern parents are bombarded with horrific stories about kidnappings and tragic accidents, creating the (false) impression that the world is far more dangerous than it used to be. It isn’t surprising, then, that so many become “helicopters” or “lawn mowers,” shielding their kids from anything that might be upsetting, scary, or difficult. Coddling is so pervasive today that families that encourage independence may be harassed by law enforcement or Child Protective Services. Skenazy’s “free-range kids” movement has worked to win legal protections for families that allow children to engage in such perilous activities as walking dogsplaying in parks, and riding city buses.

I support free-range kids. I’m not sure Rosin and Skenazy have gotten to the heart of this issue though. Modern parents aren’t just a product of scary news stories and overzealous lawsuits. From our first positive pregnancy test, we are inundated with reminders that we, as progenitors, are expected to be full-fledged life managers to our children from birth through adulthood. The village is gone, and in its absence we have been charged with arranging every aspect of life in such a way as to secure our kids’ well-being. Why wouldn’t we walk them to the bus stop?

The demand for hyper-parenting starts early. I myself was introduced to it by William and Martha Sears, the “attachment parenting” gurus, whose books were all the rage in my first pregnancy. Several people gave or lent me copies, from which I learned that the organic and joyful way to parent was by syncing myself physically and emotionally to my infant with the intensity of a Vulcan mind-meld. I read about reducing my “reaction times” whenever the baby cried or cooed, enabling the two of us to achieve a loving and mutually affirming bond. I read about the dire long-term consequences of unmet emotional needs, which would open antisocial fissures in my child’s psyche, possibly turning him into a sociopath. In fairness, the Searses did periodically mention that my own mental health was important and that I should try to “be a Caribbean mama” (e.g. laid back and unperturbed). But since they obviously believed that this kind of parenting was itself intuitive and richly rewarding, I was left with the impression that maternal stress was mostly a short-term issue, which would resolve on its own once I’d filed away some of the callouses from my selfish, pre-maternal soul.

The Searses were right about one thing. Those hundreds of hours of breastfeeding and baby wearing paid off once my kids reached their school years. I was perfectly conditioned for modern schools, which operate under the assumption that I will be closely involved in all aspects of my kids’ education. On a typical evening, I find myself initialing at least three or four different forms, checking over assignments, and drilling spelling words. Most of these parental contributions are explicitly demanded in the daily newsletters I receive from each child’s teacher. In winter, I must be sure to pack every expected winter item (coat, hat, mittens, boots, snow pants), lest I receive a “reminder card” along with a borrowed item that I am expected to wash and return. In my own childhood, I can remember pulling up a hood or putting my hands in my pockets because I had forgotten my winter things. Nowadays you’re simply not allowed to let your kids be cold.

This past summer, I had an amusing conversation with my mother in which she remarked that she did almost no homework help with her five kids. On reflection, that’s actually true. I assumed my homework was my responsibility; it never occurred to me that my mom would get in trouble if I didn’t do it. My siblings and I were scholastically successful, without constant parental monitoring. Even so, I can’t imagine storming into a parent-teacher conference announcing that I’m done with spelling tests. That’s not how things work today, it seems.  

Nutrition is another fun example. More than once, in meetings with educational or health professionals, I have been flummoxed by questions about a child’s daily fiber intake or how many servings of vegetables he consumes daily. I’m sure there’s an app for that; I guess I’d better find it.

I haven’t done the teen years yet, but I’m not naïve. Most teen parents seem to have their smartphones tripped out with elaborate color-coded schedules marking practices, exams, due dates, and appointments. Then there are the massively intensified concerns about unsavory friends, appropriate leisure activities, and looming collegiate and professional plans. Are you monitoring your teenager’s mental health? Have you talked to them about sex and drugs? This isn’t just one conversation, you know.

I’m already tired just thinking about it.

As one would expect, our age of hyper-parenting has given way to a rise in parenting books. If Sears-esque nurturing isn’t doing it for you, check out Leonard Sax or Amy Chua for a more authoritarian approach. If the ambient culture terrifies you, or school policies are grinding your gears, you can assume total control of your child’s environment by homeschooling. There are a thousand different diets, educational approaches, and parenting styles from which to choose. They all have one thing in common though: it’s basically up to you, the parent, to execute. Your kids’ whole lives are in your hands.

Parents make mistakes sometimes. We interfere when we shouldn’t or hold back when we ought to help. Fundamentally though, the present situation is systemic and far beyond the control of individual parents. Heavily managed childhoods may give rise to overly dependent adults, but we’re going to keep managing because there is no acceptable alternative.

Family and community structures have eroded, even as the demands of adult life have become extraordinarily complex. We currently have no way of addressing this reality that doesn’t involve massive investments of parental time, money, and attention. High-intensive parenting, for all its pitfalls, seems to have much better outcomes than lower-investment alternatives. And realistically, the world has become quite perilous, albeit not in the ways people sometimes imagine. Your child probably won’t be kidnapped, but he might easily fall prey to any number of other problems: mental illness, substance abuse, obesity, unemployment, criminality, and general despair. I’m trying to raise five sons in a world where I’m regularly reading about directionless “NEETs” and angry, dissociated loners who suddenly launch themselves on homicidal killing sprees. Don’t try to tell me that the kids will be all right.

When children correctly perceive that their parents’ lives are radically oriented around their personal well-being, they can become self-centered and fragile, leading to a crisis of “resilience.” That concern is on my radar, but it’s just one of a thousand things. I appreciate constructive data-driven advice, but I get a little tired of parents being blamed for every single social ill, as though there actually were some time-tested way of doing it right. Must we compare concerned parents to large buzzing objects? Rest assured: a parent who fails to get involved when needed will be excoriated for insensitivity and neglect. There is no way to guarantee that you will never be “that parent,” which is presumably one reason why growing numbers are deciding to skip the whole thing altogether.

Parenthood can certainly be joyful, and modern parents do benefit from the close bonds we forge with our children. Even so, the reality is that today’s kids are radically dependent on us to equip them for adult life. It’s not their choice or even ours. It’s American life as we know it. If we want childhood to be less “managed,” or young adults more intrepid, the conversation needs to go beyond parenting. Even if we can’t regrow the village, it takes more than a parent to raise a resilient child.

Rachel Lu is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a Robert Novak Fellow.

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36 Responses to Why We Hyperparent, Helicopter and Heavily Manage Our Children

  1. James says:

    This entire piece reads like a cop out – raise strong, independent children and you needn’t worry about the vast majority of these concerns. Blaming society is so much easier, yet every society is comprised of the indivuduals that constitute it. Unless this issue is addressed, the continuum will eventually break down when the last generation capable being functional human beings passes away. It isn’t that far off.

  2. Whine Merchant says:

    I am always amused by the oxymoron of people longing for some sort of conservative image of them good ole days in Mayberry, and the same conservatives calling the authorities when something actually resembles the idyllic myth they cling to –

  3. Anne (the other one) says:

    My children hated sandwiches and cold lunches. My husband made pancakes every morning and I made a hot home cooked meal after school. I was forced to pack a fake lunch. I recycled it every day for a week and then I tossed it.

    As a hint, teach your children to forge your signature. This will be extremely helpful in high school. When teachers ask if you’ve seen some paper, smile and nod.

  4. sam says:

    Mark Twain is now supervised by aunt Poly .And aunt Ploy works for the Government.

  5. JessicaR says:

    It always surprised me when I hear that modern children are coddled and therefore fragile. There are some important ways in which modern children are not at all coddled.

    1. Nearly all children now spend huge parts of their lives in daycare. Even the best-run centers are impersonal institutions run by low-paid workers who must divide their time among numerous children all at roughly the same age and with the same needs. Kids are not getting a lot of attention and coddling there.

    2. Many children live in either single-parent homes or blended family homes with stressed parents and substitute parents who, propaganda about love making a family aside, do not love their stepchildren (or partner’s children) with nearly the same level of intensity and commitment.

    3. Girls in step-families are almost 6 times more likely to be sexually abused as girls in families with two biological parents. They are also more likely to be physically punished by stepfathers than biological fathers. Additionally, step families, according to research, tend to spend more money on things like cigarettes and alcohol than on food.

    4. Divorce often means the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and extended families.

    5. Because good blue collar jobs rarely exist anymore, academic achievement is the only way to economic security. That is why parents help so much with homework–because it matters more than it used to. A child with learning disabilities or who simply isn’t good at school is under special stress.

    The trigger warnings and safe spaces may arise because more kids are being abused due to the collapse of two-biological-parent families.

    I happen to teach freshman year composition and work with a lot of kids. I rarely find the kind of fragility you discuss. While it happens, it is rare.

  6. mrscracker says:

    I raised eight children.
    I liked Dr.James Dobson’s books. He’s been beat up recently about his words on self esteem but self worth is a good thing I think. It just needs to be based on the right things.

    Outside of Dr. Dobson,the only book about child rearing I’d recommend is “Bringing Up Bebe” which describes how French children are brought up.
    The French may not have all the answers but they do have many things we can learn from. Like giving parents their own lives and spaces apart from their children.
    And setting firm boundaries for their children but giving them more freedom within those boundaries.

    And number one: teaching manners and respect. No one wants to be around a disrespectful, poorly mannered child. Not even a parent. And when they grow up, children will find that’s also true in the workplace and every where else.

  7. sis92y says:

    The failure of individuals who do not have the ability to function as self-sufficient adults is not owned by society – it is owned by the individuals who knowingly did wrong just because it was an acceptable social norm. There is a difference between wanting to protect your children from a defunct society, and contributing to that defunct society by failing to teach kids how to become self-sufficient adults.

  8. BradleyD says:

    @James I don’t think you read the piece right, or maybe missed the mark. That is the reason you hyper parent: to create strong independent children. At least, that is the goal. Parents today must hyper parent or they are doing it wrong.

    Today, parents must ensure their child is brought up with a good, moral foundation, educated, takes at least two AP courses and has two extra curricular activities, eats a balanced diet, and spends enough time on the computer to learn but no too much time, mind you.

    Back in the day you just got credit if you kid lived. Well, I mean if they died of an illness that wasn’t totally your fault. Still an A for effort.

  9. Dan Green says:

    Take a look at the birth rate, as in no thanks.

  10. JN says:

    If you don’t want to helicopter-parent your kids, it helps to have a few concrete suggestions on how to accomplish this. My current one is to not stay and watch sports practice or extracurricular activities/lessons. Drop your kid off and then leave and do something else. Some parents do this easily, and some parents insist on staying. Set the expectation with your kids that you don’t always need to observe what they are doing. I’ve been doing this with my six-year-olds and they are fine with it (and even prefer it).

  11. JN says:

    I think the attitude of the schools has a lot to do with it. In our district, the school will send fairly minimal information home before the school year begins and then hosts an open house in October. I have yet to meet my kids’ teachers this year in person (and that’s ok!). Our neighboring towns’ schools hold curriculum nights, potlucks, etc, and generally seem to assume much more involvement from parents. Frankly, I’m glad to be in a district where the schools mostly leave me alone!

  12. Lert345 says:

    I think Jessica makes a valid point about the state of too many children in our society. The pathology referenced in the article is more pertinent to upper class children. On one hand we have the affluent child whose life is micro-managed and over scheduled so he/she is on a trajectory to a top career. Then we have the children of never married mothers in Section 8 housing who park their offspring in front of the TV all day and don’t care about their education.

    One of the major reasons for the cosseting of children is that their parents were young people in the 1990s, when the faces of missing children began to appear on milk cartons (without the important disclaimer that the vast majority were involved in custody disputes and would never be harmed). It gave the impression that child kidnappers were everywhere.

    The second attitude prevalent during that period was that if you didn’t study hard and go to college, you were going to end up “flipping burgers at McDonald’s”. So the people who became today’s professional parents did everything they could do ensure their children would not end up with a profession in fast food preparation.

    The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction. Now, it’s starting to swing back after all the negative fallout.

  13. JJ says:

    “More than once, in meetings with educational or health professionals, I have been flummoxed by questions about a child’s daily fiber intake or how many servings of vegetables he consumes daily.”

    In winter, I must be sure to pack every expected winter item lest I receive a “reminder card” along with a borrowed item that I am expected to wash and return. In my own childhood, I can remember pulling up a hood or putting my hands in my pockets because I had forgotten my winter things. Nowadays you’re simply not allowed to let your kids be cold.”

    What sort of crazy school do your kids go to??? The teachers ask how much fiber your kids takes daily? The teachers have extra gloves that kids must borrow and wear??? This has not been our experience with any school, public or private and in two states.

    I think the author is grossly exaggerating to make a point.

  14. Jack says:

    Although not mentioned in the article, the real reason that parenting is so high investment nowadays is because people are having fewer children in the past.

    If you put all your eggs [pun intended] in one basket by having one child, you’re going to devote a lot of care and attention to that one basket. In the old days, when larger families were the norm, kids were more free-range than they are now.

  15. Joe the Plutocrat says:

    for years we heard warnings of single parent homes, absentee fathers (and mothers), children raised on television (which Tele-Tubbie is gay?), and whatnot. the concept or idea of “helicopter parents” “hyper-parenting” – and of course, who hasn’t joked about “hand sanitizer-moms”? these titles are more literary than reality. they are merely a byproduct of the self-help/parenting Industrial Complex’s need to sell books, magazines and “monetize” the new media (internet, blogs, social media, etc.). good parents sometimes make mistakes, and awful parents sometimes get it right. it does “take a village” but as with parents, there are good villages and bad villages, ultimately the child will be the adult they will be. to reduce the issue to an idea like “hyper-parenting” is, in a manner of speaking like voting for a candidate because he promises to Make America Great Again. again, America has always been great for some, and not great for others, and this includes everyone from the 1% to those living in poverty.

  16. mrscracker says:

    ” I learned that the organic and joyful way to parent was by syncing myself physically and emotionally to my infant with the intensity of a Vulcan mind-meld.”
    **********

    Actually this can be important for newborns. Even their breathing pattern, which isn’t fully developed, syncs to the mother’s breathing. Infants at risk for SIDS have few to no episodes when they sleep on their mother’s chest or next to her. In Nature, infants are held close to the mom for warmth & security. It only makes sense.

    What makes less sense are parents “wearing” large, healthy toddlers who able to walk on their own 2 feet. Or mothers sleeping with older children while Daddy sleeps in a separate room because co-sleeping deprives him of sleep & interferes with his work. I’ve known 2 families where this happened & one ended in divorce.

  17. Beans Baby says:

    I lay at least part of the blame on the connectivity of the schools via apps with parents and kids. Instead of getting all the information I needed in a backpack, I now have to check the backpack, the binder, my personal email, my personal text, and the 2 school based apps to make sure I get all the information I need to get thru the week. And yes, I am expected to check and keep up.
    The same goes for kids when it comes to homework – they have to check what they wrote in their planner against the 2 school based apps and then group text friends to make sure they have their bases covered. It is just too complex – but no one seems to want to simplify things.

  18. Scott says:

    “They’re terrified of failure. They can’t take a joke. They want trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect them from scary ideas. Admittedly, there are upsides to this middle-aged cautiousness: compared to their parents at similar ages, teens today are more leery of recreational drugs and less likely to get pregnant. They do love their prescription medications, however. Antidepressants and prescription stimulants play a big role in high school and college life today.”

    This article starts off with this massive generalization and straw man. You know, I just finished raising three children and know many others. I just don’t see this happening. Yes, these things may happen in a small subset of kids who then get written about but I think the panic and triggers and everything else are projections of an older generation (Gen X and Boomers) who are looking to excuse their own failures as adults.

  19. JonF says:

    Jack, I was my mother’s only child, though I had an older half brother from my father’s previous marriage. I was however a free range child too, in the 70s. My parents were certainly “hands-on” with my upbringing but they were not micromanagers like so many parents now.

  20. CLW says:

    It’s painful trying to teach your kids that hard work, being a good person, and pursuing a career that reflects your passions, talents, and interests will get you far in life, when the truth is that your “success” in contemporary American society is increasing measured by how much you contribute to the cycle of corporate profit generation and the consumption of consumer goods.

  21. Scorched Earth says:

    I never wanted children. Unfortunately, birth control is not perfect and the wife and I were too darn healthy and fertile for our own good; So, we ended up with two daughters who are now full grown, leaving us with an empty-nest.

    So did that change my view towards people who say they don’t want children? Au-contraire! Being a parent only helped to reaffirm everything I suspected about parenthood that made me want to avoid it like the plague. When I see a couple with the wife pregnant, I actually feel sorry for them. And if they’re conservative, I feel even more sorry for them considering the hyper-liberal environment of the public-schools they’ll be sending their children to. In addition to all the usual stresses and anxieties they can expect, conservative parents are going to have to work especially hard to counteract the liberal nonsense their children will be taught in school, such as transgenderism, gay lifestyle acceptance, moral-relativism and the inferiority of white men.

    Neither of my daughters have children. And while I will leave the Great Decision to them to make for themselves, I have told them that I do NOT need to be a grandfather.

  22. Thrice A Viking says:

    Whine Merchant, precisely what are these things that approach the Mayberry idyll for which conservatives call the authorities? I have no idea what you mean.

  23. Thrice A Viking says:

    Scott, they may be a small subset of kids, but they must carry disproportionate weight, as they’ve gotten speakers cancelled or effectively silenced at Berkeley, Harvard, Middlebury, even Missouri at Columbia.

  24. Zgler says:

    “Whine Merchant, precisely what are these things that approach the Mayberry idyll for which conservatives call the authorities? I have no idea what you mean.”

    I think he means when people call the cops because a parent leaves a 7 year old in a playground and goes 50 feet away instead of hovering over the kid. Can’t say if it’s conservatives or not but people have been known to call the cops. Also happens if you leave a sleeping kid in the locked car with the window cracked open in the shade on a 70 degree day while you go into the bank for 5 minutes. This stuff never used to be a problem.

  25. Jack says:

    @JonF:

    What I said still holds. When something becomes more scarce, it’s value goes up. People are thus more likely to go to great lengths to safeguard it

  26. Myron Hudson says:

    I agree with Scott – this article is in large part massive generalization and straw man. While pathologies are always present to some degree, they do not define a generation or a population.

    That said, what Lert345 says bears re-reading.

  27. Locksley says:

    Dear Mrscracker,

    If you like to read about French child-rearing, the funniest thing you can read is Nancy Mitford’s novel “The Blessing” (1951). The title refers to the child, and is ironic. The book is hilarious; I think you’d really like it.

  28. Ansley says:

    Agree that there’s a class component at work. Doing the college tour thing with my kids now, and nearly every “top tier” private school we’ve visited has touted coloring books and puppies/kittens/baby animals during finals week. Haven’t heard any of that at the state schools.

    Schools have a conflicting relationship with the online apps, too. The apps show you every homework assignment, quiz, etc. per class, whether it’s late and the grade received. As a parent, you have the choice to (1) get on the app every day and hound your kid about whether he’s started his essay or whatnot, or (2) limit your app use to occasional check ins knowing that your kid can and will probably screw up. Our middle school was big on “letting them fail and learn responsibility.” Fine. So I scaled back my app use. But then I show up to the conference and the teacher points out missing assignments, asking me, “Don’t you monitor the app?” Challenging to strike the right balance.

  29. mrscracker says:

    Locksley,
    That’s very kind of you to make that book recommendation. I’ll see if I can locate a copy at the library.

    We’ve hosted 2 French exchange students in the past & the difference in manners was really apparent. They were lovely to be around. They brought thoughtfully chosen gifts from France to share with us & wrote thank you notes after their stays.

    A few years ago I noticed similar good manners in the UK. In 2 weeks travels between Cornwall & Edinburgh I only saw one instance of public rudeness in children. Even very small children knew how to behave in restaurants & be respectful to other diners.

  30. Dale says:

    Lert345: “Then we have the children of never married mothers in Section 8 housing who park their offspring in front of the TV all day and don’t care about their education.”

    AKA.
    Then we have the children of indigent, irresponsible, immoral disappeared fathers who do not care that their offspring are parked in front of the TV all day and don’t care about their education.

  31. Mike1 says:

    “you can assume total control of your child’s environment by homeschooling” have you considered that the opposite is actually true:homeschooling is increasingly the only means to give your kids some freedom. Throwaway disparaging lines about homeschooling currently show either fear or laziness. If you genuinely can’t afford to home-school (i.e. two working parents) I get sending kids to school. Current schools are, without exception, SJW factories. This includes Christian schools.

  32. JessicaR says:

    I notice that one of the links at the beginning of the article is to a book by a psychologist named Saxe. The article’s author uses this link to show how many kids are troubled. However, the book the author links to is specifically about boys, not girls. Furthermore, according to reviews, the author focuses on issues like father absence, endocrine disruptors, and video games.

    In fact, if you visit Saxe’s website, he writes a great deal about endocrine disruptors and their effects.

    Is it possible that the new over-protective parenting style is not the cause of kids’ problems but rather a response to them? Studies in peer-reviewed journals have linked exposure to high levels of these substances to emotional disorders and learning disabilities. It may be that boys, for whatever reason, are more susceptible to their effects than girls.

    If this is the case–and there is some, albeit not conclusive–evidence for this position, the problem may be an ecological one and not one of parenting style.

  33. Anarcissie says:

    A lot of this stuff does not correspond to the traditional Right-Left, conservative-liberal-radical divide. However, I think it is class-based, in that, as the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer, the parental instinct of the rich folks is to protect their genetic investment in every way possible. They are the ones who are noisy about parenting theory. The rest have to work and don’t have time to helicopter or theorize much. And the poor are too depressed. Rich folks’ helicoptering and theorizing can have a liberal or conservative style, but it’s the same thing basically.

  34. Tomonthebeach says:

    For those who impune this story as false, I have a simple test for you to try. Next family reunion, ask the grand parents to expose their knees. Have your kids count the number of scars on the adult knees then count the scars on their own knees. If the average number of scars on your kids knees is less…

    Remind the hairsplitters in the room that most knee scars are earned in childhood.

  35. JonF says:

    Dale & Lert345, Back in ye olden days I was a free range kid but I also spent a good amount of time in front of the boob tube- and I had an at-home mother too, until her death when I was nine. The TV as babysitter thing gas been around for a good long time and is hardl limited to the indigent. Joining it nowasays are phone video babysitters.

  36. mrscracker says:

    Tomonthebeach says:
    “Next family reunion, ask the grand parents to expose their knees. Have your kids count the number of scars on the adult knees then count the scars on their own knees. If the average number of scars on your kids knees is less…”
    ****************

    True.
    I heard a father complaining on the radio recently about how some parents freak out at the playground if their child gets a minor scrape.
    He also noted that children react to the level of alarm the parent shows. The less anxiety the parent demonstrates, the less frightened the child.

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